WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton sent speculation about her bid for the Senate into overdrive yesterday with a formal acknowledgment that she would give "careful thought" to pursuing the New York seat being vacated next year by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
President Clinton stoked the issue Monday when he told reporters in Mexico that his wife would make a "great" senator.
The first lady took her cue yesterday, releasing a three-sentence statement that she was "deeply gratified by the large number of people who have encouraged me to consider running for the U.S. Senate."
She added, "I will give careful thought to a potential candidacy in order to reach a decision later this year."
The Democratic nomination appears to be hers for the taking. Empire State Democrats vying to succeed Moynihan, a Democrat first elected in 1976, have all but said they would step aside to give the first lady a clear path to the nomination. After that, she almost certainly would face a difficult race against a well-financed Republican, possibly New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
But Democrats are clearly enlivened by the prospect of snagging a candidate of the stature of the first lady. The idea of a Clinton run was first floated last month by New Jersey Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a strong Clinton supporter, who reiterated his backing for her yesterday.
The offhand suggestion quickly took hold. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, an influential New York Democrat, started a recruitment push, and Moynihan on Sunday spoke of her "magnificent, young, bright, able Illinois-Arkansas enthusiasm."
"It would certainly be a thrilling experience, and we are all hoping she will decide this is a very good choice for her," said Judith Hope, the New York state Democratic Party chairwoman.
But the first lady faces any number of challenges that could keep her from the race. She has never held elective office, and New York would be a brutal place to start her career in electoral politics. The tabloid press appears to be salivating at the prospect of a Clinton-Giuliani race, just two years after the bloody campaign of 1998, in which Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer fought tooth and nail with Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato and ultimately defeated the famed "Senator Pothole."
New York newspapers are gearing up to sift through all the scandals of the Clinton presidency that touched the first lady, including the Whitewater land deal, the firings in the White House travel office and the FBI personnel files controversy.
"No more softball interviews. She can expect to get the rough-and-tumble treatment that every other candidate does," promised the New York Post in an editorial yesterday. "When she drops a prickly pear, like suggesting a Palestinian state, she won't be able to hide in the White House while others haul out the damage-control team."
She will almost certainly be painted as a carpetbagger with no real ties to a state that has famously looked after its own interests. Moynihan's seat is no stranger to outsiders, however. It was once held by Robert F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Connecticut's James Buckley.
"Over 50 percent of New Yorkers were born someplace else. We are the melting pot," Hope insisted. "We pride ourselves for welcoming people of talent who are willing to work hard."
Moreover, the Clintons face daunting financial challenges. Next week, the president's legal trust is expected to disclose the magnitude of the family's legal debts, which are likely to be in the millions of dollars. And Hillary Clinton has long been the family's main breadwinner.
"The rumor is that she is really and truly tempted [to run] but that she realizes it would be a crazy thing to do," said a Democratic pollster, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Clintons are just about the poorest people in America, outside some majorly leveraged real estate developers."
And it is not clear whether the first lady would want the job, once she seriously considered what it entails. After the cloistered world of the White House, she would find herself a junior senator, probably in the minority party, attending tedious committee meetings, confronting a press corps with far more access to her, and dealing with the mundane tasks of fund raising and constituent service.
"I think she would find it frustrating," said a longtime friend. "She has many other opportunities to be effective in a way that gives her more flexibility. A chamber runs on its own schedule. She has many other things she can do outside that arena, given her command over her own life and schedule."
The friend said Clinton currently enjoys a kind of power not found in the Senate.
"You have that bully pulpit which commands attention," the friend said. "You have to like the legislature and all the compromises and coalition-building -- and a part of her does. But another part of her had experience in the executive branch, where you're more in charge."
For now, at least, the first lady is being greeted only by hosannas from the Democratic Party. Democrats such as Rep. Nita M. Lowey have been waiting for years for Moynihan's retirement and an opportunity to run. In the past month, Lowey has visited Syracuse, Newburgh, Albany and Buffalo.
Yet her chief of staff, Howard Wolfson, said Lowey would gladly step aside if Clinton decided to run.
"If she runs, [Lowey] will support her enthusiastically," Wolfson said.
The first lady may be pleading for time to make her decision, but she does not have long. Democratic hopefuls have been practically frozen in their tracks by the speculation about her run, not wanting to raise and spend campaign cash if they will have to step aside. Meanwhile, Republicans are running hard.
Still, the first lady appears to be enjoying the attention and is playing it for all it's worth.
Yesterday, a platoon of reporters showed up to hear her announce a $956 million relief package for Central American and Caribbean nations clobbered last year by Hurricanes Mitch and Georges -- an event they probably would not have covered normally.
When the event ended, a reporter shouted out the question that most of the journalists came to ask: When will you make your decision about the Senate bid?
She simply smiled and waved as she left the stage.
The question was, after all, a welcome respite from the Monica Lewinsky-related issues that have dogged the first lady for more than a year.
"People should respect the important professional decision Hillary Rodham Clinton has to make," Torricelli cautioned.
"I hope her friends will give her advice and encouragement, but I also hope they will give her consideration and time."
Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.
"I am deeply gratified by the large number of people who have encouraged me to consider running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
"Until now, I have not been able to do so, but I will give careful thought to a potential candidacy in order to reach a decision later this year.
"In the meantime, I intend to continue to focus my attention on the issues central to the president's agenda and on which we have worked together for many years." Pub Date: 2/17/99