Senator Clinton? Don't open the office yet

She must overcome high negatives and early missteps to win the New York

Realistically, can she win?

So far, Hillary Rodham Clinton's performance coming out of the starting blocks has mainly produced nagging doubts about her readiness for a high-profile Senate campaign.

While she made clear this week that she does intend to run, she's lagged behind her likely Republican opponent, the feisty, firebrand mayor of New York, for months now. Her campaign trail is strewn with political faux pas. And her will-she-or-won't-she equivocating has so infuriated New York Democrats that some have publicly urged her to just forget it.

It's a "high-risk campaign," says New York pollster John Zogby. "She can win, but it's quite challenging."

From any perspective, the polling numbers so far are sobering for Mrs. Clinton. She currently trails Mayor Rudolph Giuliani by nearly eight points statewide, according to Mr. Zogby's latest poll, which queries likely voters. While she leads the mayor in New York City, she is about 20 points behind him in two crucial areas: the city's suburbs and upstate New York.

Perhaps worse, says GOP consultant Jay Severin, is that she's vulnerable with key constituents. Citing Zogby data, he notes that nearly one-third of Democrats say Clinton should drop out. Sixty percent of independents say the same, and nearly half of women voters do.

"In my business, these are the kisses of death," he says.

Just in time

Analysts say Clinton's choreographed announcement this week that she indeed will vie for the seat of retiring US Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) came at the last acceptable moment.

State Democrats have criticized her harshly, with one key New York City Council Democrat calling her "the weakest candidate." New York state Sen. Carl Kruger, also a Democrat, announced he was switching to Mr. Giuliani because "he is a feisty spokesman that manifests all of the qualities I would want to see in a US senator." Clinton, he said, fits New York "like a square peg in a round hole."

Mr. Kruger represents a heavily Jewish district in Brooklyn, and some members of the Jewish community have criticized Clinton's recent stance on comments by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's wife, Suha, as well as her past expressed support for a Palestinian state.

During a recent trip to the Mideast, Clinton sat in silence as Mrs. Arafat accused Israeli security forces of using "poison gas" on Palestinian women and children. The Clinton campaign says there was a problem with the translation, and Clinton this week defended herself by saying she did not want to cause an "international incident" over "whatever it was" Mrs. Arafat said.

A string of gaffes?

Though Zogby says the Arafat-Clinton episode didn't register with New York voters, other analysts see it as the latest in a string of Clinton political gaffes.

They include a flip-flop on her husband's pardoning of imprisoned Puerto Rico nationalists and, most important, her failure to consult leaders of the Puerto Rican community about her views.

Also on the list is the creative financing of the Clintons' new Westchester County home, where she will soon be moving.

But the biggest strike against Clinton is her carpetbagger status. If she is to win, Zogby says, she must take at least 70 percent of New York City (a CBS/New York Times poll has her at 60 percent), tighten the race in the suburbs, and win upstate cities such as Buffalo and Rochester.

Analysts say the suburbs will be the hardest place for her to make inroads, because voters near the city like how the mayor has cracked down on crime there. More fertile ground may exist upstate, where Democrat Chuck Schumer found enough votes to unseat Republican Alfonse D'Amato in a hard-scrabble US Senate race in 1998.

Mrs. Clinton's assets

But even Clinton critics, such as Mr. Severin, acknowledge she has some things going for her: first-lady status, name recognition, and a passion for the issues.

"She can do it, because of her status as a feminist champion, first lady, mother, martyr, wronged wife. Right now, Hillary Clinton is not really a candidate, she's a cause. Because of that, she really starts from an envious position - all the gaffes to the contrary," says Severin.

The key to this race is voter turnout, concludes Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion. There are few undecided voters, and the higher the turnout, the higher the minority vote - which will help Clinton.

"The edge is Rudy's," he says, "but he has not closed the sale."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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