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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Hillary Clinton Needs to Be a Woman of Substance in a Race Big on Style

March 27, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

NEW YORK — When Rudolph W. Giuliani met the press one morning last week to discuss the latest police shooting of an unarmed black man here, the mayor sprayed the room with invective as if he were some sort of automatic weapon himself.

In a mere half hour, Giuliani attacked the press ("Your capacity for creating a false picture is pretty impressive, and . . . you resent the fact that I try to give balance to that."); the dead man, Patrick Dorismond (He "spent a good deal of his adult life punching people."); Hillary Rodham Clinton, his opponent in the New York Senate race, who had accused him of dividing the city ("There's a process called projection in psychology: It means accusing someone of what you are doing. That is precisely what Mrs. Clinton is doing."); Al Sharpton; and the press again. Not since Don Rickles prowled the Catskills had so many New Yorkers been insulted so quickly.

It's combustive moments like those that have Democrats dreaming Giuliani will simply beat himself in his high-profile Senate race against the first lady. But that's almost certainly a false hope. Though she's been on her best behavior as a candidate, Clinton is such an inherently polarizing cultural and political figure that she's unlikely to win a personality contest even against the prickly Giuliani. If Clinton has a chance, most local analysts agree, it's by creating an issue debate that makes the race a referendum on what each of them might do in the Senate. And that won't be easy in a contest whose sheer spectacle and entertainment value reduce issues to a sideshow.

Both camps are treating this race as a war. (Fearful of disruptions, the two candidates guard their public schedules as if they were state secrets, announcing major events sometimes only hours in advance.) Yet, for all the intensity, the contest has been strangely static, more trench warfare than blitzkrieg. Though a New York Post survey released Sunday gave Clinton a narrow lead within the margin of error, virtually every other poll this year has put Giuliani ahead, with very few undecided.

Consistently, and ominously, Clinton isn't drawing nearly as much support as she needs from two critical elements of the Democratic base here: Jews and white women, who like the job Giuliani has done as mayor and are unsure about her. And though the race is already drawing saturation coverage, the two already seem to be trading votes only at the margin; even in the Post poll that showed her ahead, Clinton only drew 45%. "I sometimes feel I could wake up in seven months and we could just start then," acknowledges one senior Clinton advisor.

The ground isn't entirely frozen. As the Post poll found, Giuliani's never-give-an-inch response to the Dorismond shooting has helped Clinton win back some New York City Democrats who like what the mayor's done for the city but are uneasy with his belligerent (and sometimes racially polarizing) style. The first lady has tried to stoke those anxieties by relentlessly portraying Giuliani as a divider and herself as someone who can bring the city and state together: "I want to be known by who I lift up, not who I put down," she told a swaying crowd in a Harlem church last week.

But with Clinton also evoking such strong emotions, it's hard to see her attracting a majority around the idea that she can be a rallying point for all New Yorkers--especially because she's such a newly minted New Yorker. And while Giuliani regularly crosses the line from straight talk to truculence, he also has a from-the-hip authenticity that, as John McCain demonstrated, many voters find attractive. Probably no shortage of New Yorkers like the idea of Giuliani's getting in Washington's face the way he has New York's.

Which is why both independent observers and Clinton's own advisors believe her best chance is to sharpen the issue debate with the mayor. That's the one terrain where Clinton may have an advantage. "It's a very good environment for her in that way," says Lee Miringoff, who directs the nonpartisan Marist College Poll.

In a CBS/New York Times poll last month, New Yorkers ranked health care and education as their top two concerns; they preferred Clinton over Giuliani on the former by almost 3 to 1 and by almost 2 to 1 on the latter. (Giuliani held an even greater advantage on crime, but only two New Yorkers in 100 tapped that as their top concern.) More than two-thirds of those polled said they preferred to use the federal surplus to pay down the national debt and stabilize Social Security and Medicare (as Clinton, like most Democrats, is urging), while only 1 in 6 wanted a large tax cut, as most Republicans are pushing.

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