For first lady, steep political learning curve

As Clinton officially enters New York Senate race, missteps have shown perils of a first-time campaign.

On Sunday, Hillary Rodham Clinton will abandon her proper first-lady pumps for a pair of serious New York running shoes.

When she formally announces her bid for the US Senate before an expected crowd of 6,000 supporters, she will become the only first lady in American history to run for elective office.

The kickoff is also likely to ratchet into high gear a slugfest with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that, one pollster joked, will make the presidential contest seem like a mere sideshow.

But for all her high-profile exposure, this is Mrs. Clinton's first run for elective office - and it's showing. She's taken to the stump in a state where the landscape is particularly complex and riddled with political land mines. New York is rife with ethnic and regional differences, entrenched political interests, and a notoriously aggressive press.

And many pundits have been surprised by Clinton's awkward navigation so far.

"Everybody expected the Clinton political-acumen machine to land on New York's borders, and instead what we got was a woman who clearly hadn't been around the track on her own yet," says pollster Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Neophytes jumping into the fray at an ambitious level are nothing new to the American political process, particularly if they're millionaires. Their track records are mixed nationally. Businessman Herb Kohl spent $7 million, mostly of his own money, and won his first political race in '88 when he ran for the US Senate in Wisconsin. This year he's expected to cruise easily to a third term.

In 1994, Michael Huffington spent nearly $30 million running for a US Senate seat in California and lost.

New York state of mind

In New York, greenhorns have generally done better. Robert Kennedy and James Buckley both won their first elective office when they ran for US senator in the Empire State.

But in this first, unofficial year on the stump, Clinton has appeared to do as much tripping as she did listening on her famous summer tour. She donned a Yankee baseball cap, waffled on the issue of clemency for a group of jailed Puerto Rican nationalists, and embraced Suha Arafat, who'd just accused the Israelis of poisoning Palestinians. While Clinton insisted she didn't know what Mrs. Arafat was saying at the time, and disavowed it when she understood it, the New York press had a field day.

It all underscores one of the difficult lessons she's learned in the last year: There's a big difference between being a public figure in the limelight - the wife of a president - and actually running for public office when every word and action is put under scrutiny.

Indeed, last year the networks gave Clinton more coverage than they did the presidential contenders.

"Because she's first lady, everything she does is scrutinized in a magnified way," says pollster John Zogby.

Then, there's the long-term strategizing, where Clinton's inexperience comes through. So far, critics say, her campaign has been flat and lacks a clear focus.

"She doesn't have the large experience in trying to think a campaign through from beginning to end," says Tom Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "Although, having been involved in races on both the state and federal levels, she's probably better prepared than most novices,... certainly more prepared than [Elizabeth] Dole was."

Mr. Patterson says the first lady is not a "novice's novice" in that she has a large amount of experience with the three things that candidates do most: speaking to large audiences, interacting with small intimate ones, and dealing with the press. But other pundits say the expectations set up by that experience are working against Clinton.

"She is running as a novice, but people don't perceive her that way, so they don't have a lot of room for her errors," says Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Barnard College in New York.

Ms. Fuchs says Clinton is making the same mistakes as other political newcomers: She's playing too closely to her script and giving too much control to her staff.

Still tentative

When she was recently asked why women voters weren't warming up to her, Clinton joked they may not like her hair. That played well, Fuchs says, but then her staff came along and started backtracking, saying she really didn't mean it - a symptom of a candidate who doesn't truly trust herself yet.

"You get that tentativeness about her. You don't get to see her spontaneous with the gloves off, the armor off, and the battalion of men who protect her away," she says. "If she doesn't change the direction of her campaign and let people touch her both physically and spiritually, she's going to lose."

Some analysts attribute that uncertainty to the ambiguity of her dual roles as first lady and unannounced candidate. Helen DesFosses, a professor of public policy at SUNY at Albany, hopes that after Sunday's announcement Clinton will come out from the first lady "cocoon" and start to be more open, accessible, and confrontational.

"The more people get to meet this woman, interact with this woman, the more persuaded they're going to be of her standing and stature and appropriateness to be a US senator," says Ms. DesFosses, who is also a Democratic activist. "She's got to make sure as many voters as possible get to meet her - and there's not that much time left."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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