NEW YORK — This being a story about an out-of-towner in New York, let's start with the bottom line: Hillary Rodham Clinton is not running for the U.S. Senate. Not officially. Not yet.
But beginning a two-day flirtation with the city Wednesday, she played her time here--from the far reaches of Queens to the heart of Manhattan (the Plaza Hotel, no less)--just like a candidate.
What she offered, gushed an important fan, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, came "very close to an open declaration" of candidacy.
Mrs. Clinton has talked voting statistics with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. From Sen. Robert Torricelli, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she has gotten the hard sell as he seeks to line up potentially winning candidates. And she has listened to the pleas of union leaders--and party fund-raisers.
But it was not until Wednesday that the boomlet based on the proposition that the first lady might someday be known as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) got real on the streets of New York--with all the celebrity-sighting glamour that New York can turn out.
From the steps of the Plaza, one could barely see the Fifth Avenue display windows of F.A.O. Schwartz, all but hidden behind television satellite trucks parked bumper to bumper.
"I haven't seen so many photographers since the last Victoria's Secret show in the fall," muttered one woman working her way into the Plaza's Grand Ballroom.
The cause of all the ruckus was a seemingly offhand comment that Toricelli made on "Meet the Press" early in January, suggesting that, with Moynihan's suddenly announced retirement, Mrs. Clinton might consider running for the seat in 2000.
Ever since, she and President Clinton have masterfully teased the matter as she gives it, by all accounts, serious thought.
Marveling at the crowd that had gathered to hear her luncheon speech to the Women's Leadership Forum, an arm of the Democratic National Committee, she said at the outset: "I'm told some had thought I might have an announcement to make."
She paused, and then added: "I don't."
But she proceeded to address every reason why politics is a noble profession, how much political action had accomplished during the last six years of the Clinton administration and how much more it could accomplish in the future.
'Lifeblood of a Democracy'
"Politics," she said, "is how we get along with one another. Politics . . . in good times and bad times is really the lifeblood of a democracy." And, she said, "women have taken their rightful place in the political landscape."
Consider, she said, the problems that have been addressed in recent years: gun control, raising the minimum wage, health care, child care and education. In each, she said, politics made a difference.
As for the future, she said, decisions remain on protecting patients' treatment by health maintenance organizations, addressing the need for more teachers in the nation's schools, acting "fiscally responsible" with the federal budget surplus.
"These are not decisions we should leave to someone else," she said.
And with that, having spent part of her morning at an intermediate school in Queens (where 18 television cameras lined up to record the event) and having accepted at the luncheon a St. John's University sweatshirt (the local favorite expects to be in a postseason national basketball tournament), she spent more than 10 minutes shaking hands after her speech.
Talks like a candidate? Walks like a candidate? Must be. . . .
Well, not necessarily.
Everything she said and each stop she made were typical of an activist first lady--and, indeed, each would serve to support the candidacy of Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat considered the most likely candidate for the party's senatorial nomination if Mrs. Clinton does not run.
"She spoke to all the women in the audience about their role in politics and that it's important for us to get behind these ideas," said Lynn Kirsch, who came in from Westport, Conn., for the speech. "I didn't hear her make a commitment. What I heard was: 'If I run or not, all of us have a very important role.' "
Mark Green, New York's public advocate, a top consumer protection official, heard it the same way: "It was a speech to promote the audience more than herself."
But will she run?
"Talmudic I'm not," said Roy Romer, the party's general chairman, a former Colorado governor picking up the patois of New York.
No need to rush the decision, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who last November defeated Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, with major campaign help from the first lady.
"Think this one through and then, if you decide you want to be a candidate, we will support you and we will be resolute," he said, not shying from the topic of the day as he introduced her to the 500 people in the audience.
U.N. Forum Talk, School Visit