NEW YORK -- Over pancakes and eggs at the El Greco diner in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, four pals usually argue about everything from the ponies to the weather. The one thing they do seem to agree on is how much fun it is to flirt with the waitresses.
But one morning last week, the subject took a detour -- New York politics and the Senate campaign in 2000. The prospect that Hillary Rodham Clinton will run -- possibly facing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in a race for retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's seat -- was cause for another debate.
"If Hillary runs for the Senate, I will not walk to the polls," said Norman Root, 64, a former police officer. "I will run."
Maybe one second passed before Biagio "Boz" DiSalvatore, a 46-year-old Off Track Betting clerk, countered: "I hate feminists. She's power-hungry."
Root took his toothpick out of his mouth, used it like a pointer and replied, "Then you're the only one in New York City who's not going to vote for her."
His remark suggests a popular view: that aliberal New York City would not only embrace a Hillary Clinton candidacy, but would propel the first lady to a statewide victory in 2000.
Upstate New York is often more friendly to Republicans. But given Hillary Clinton's national star power, that bloc could just as easily swing to her. That is, if she -- and he -- actually run.
Clinton has yet to announce, but she continued to meet with New York political advisers last week. Giuliani, a Republican, repeatedly hints, with a Cheshire-cat grin, that he would relish a high-wattage, New York-style down-and-dirty race against the first lady. So far, he has refused to commit to a bid.
The possibility of such a race has put know-it-all New York in a buzz. From Russian neighborhoods in "Little Odessa" to shops selling Santeria paraphernalia in Spanish Harlem, from Wall Street's canyons to SoHo's precious pricey spaces, city dwellers are already taking sides. Their opinions are as hard to miss as a wide-eyed tourist on the subway.
Polls show New York City overwhelmingly in favor of a campaign by the first lady. A Time/CNN poll last week showed Clinton favored over Giuliani in the city by 68 percent to 28 percent. Many Democrats who voted for Giuliani for mayor said they would not favor him for the Senate against a compelling Democratic alternative.
In the survey, Clinton's solid city support carries the state for her, even though Giuliani polls higher in the suburbs and upstate.
Still, some point out that in his two mayoral victories, Giuliani won with the help of Democrats, and he remains highly popular, particularly among more affluent voters.
Even in what would be Hillary territory in the city, voters are not speaking in one unified voice. While some praised the first lady as an independent thinker with a powerful political presence, many others saw the Illinois native as an outsider with unbridled ambition and little sense for the needs of New Yorkers.
"It would make as much sense for somebody to sponsor Gorbachev for Senate as it would Hillary -- she's no New Yorker," said Harvey Stoneburner, a 69-year-old Brooklynite who has little patience for Clinton or her husband. "She has politics? The whole bunch of them are opportunists, the people in that White House."
At the tip of Brooklyn, Russian immigrants congregate in Little Odessa, where grocery stores sell bottled water from Ukraine and residents walk along the waterfront in thick fur hats. Here, being from somewhere else is part of being a New Yorker.
"I live here only four years, so what is the difference?" asked Raisa Mesonzhnik, a 59-year-old in Sheepshead Bay who pieced her sentences together with a computerized Russian-English dictionary stowed in her shopping bag. "She buys her apartment, and then she is New Yorker."
Lately, Clinton is schooling herself on the rough-and-tumble New York politics that have pulverized other candidates. The first lady met last week with Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who will likely run for the Senate if Clinton does not, and Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, who organizes Senate campaign spending for the Democrats. Wednesday, she begins a two-day visit to New York for speaking engagements and appearances at local schools.
The first lady also has met with a national congregation of rabbis. The meeting came after Giuliani criticized her previously stated support for Palestinian statehood, and his comment resonated with New Yorkers, many of whom are staunchly pro-Israel.
Despite the flap over the Palestinian question, without a track record in New York, Clinton is not subject to the sorts of criticisms that might dog an insider candidate. Giuliani's get-tough policies on everything from adult entertainment to jaywalking have played well nationally. But some in the city see the former prosecutor's policies as too harsh. Racial tensions under his watch -- most recently the furor over this month's shooting of an unarmed street vendor 41 times by four police officers -- further hamper his image-making.
"Hillary would understand," Israel Mills, a Bell Atlantic technician, said as he picked out tangerines at a Queens bodega. Mills, who is black, said Giuliani has "allowed the police to act like the military and tried to make brutality a non-issue."
But other New Yorkers are intensely faithful to a mayor who they say has reduced crime in a city that needs a stern hand. In white-collar areas of the city, Giuliani -- as a senator or a mayor -- remains something of a New York cult figure.
"I like Rudy," said a clerk from the New York Stock Exchange with the name "Bull Dog" stitched on his jacket. "What do I like about him? He's mean."
Some see Clinton as the coldly calculating one. These critics predict that she would use the Senate seat from New York to run for the presidency -- as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, himself a New York outsider -- did in 1968.
"I think she just stands for pure, raw ambition -- in my mind she's like a Lady Macbeth," Marc E. Babej, 28, said while sitting in a SoHo gallery called Here. "She's shrewd. She's dangerous. This is about them getting back to the White House."
But her image as a survivor eager to secure her own ambitions is not always negative, particularly among women.
"She's got the attitude," said Janet Cee, an assistant hairdresser at the SoHo salon Space. "You've got to be tough like that here. You can't come across as someone who's going to be knocked down."
In working-class areas of the city, this image also burnishes Clinton's appeal. Some residents of Spanish Harlem praised her for refusing to act the public role of the victim during the past year of scandal.
"It's a good woman who stands by her husband," Rosa Diaz, 29, said as she waited for her red-and-white nail polish to dry at Lexington Nails. "If she can build up her husband, she can build up anybody."
Emilia Santana -- who runs a botanica in Spanish Harlem selling machetes, animal pelts and merchandise for the practice of the Santeria religion -- does not know much about politics. But she knows she likes Clinton's persona.
"Hillary suffers a lot," she said. "I like her no matter what."
These days, New York politicians are using Clinton to snipe at each other. Former Mayor Edward I. Koch criticized Giuliani for taking aim at Clinton over the Palestinian issue. "If there is a low road available," Koch wrote in Friday's Daily News, "trust him to take it."
Other New York columnists are also eager to tee off on the idea of Senator Clinton -- but not always favorably.
"I dread the prospect of the First Harridan becoming the junior senator from New York, but she's gonna," wrote Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the free weekly New York Press.
To rank-and-file city dweller, however, the future of Hillary Clinton may rest not in lofty ideological issues, but in matters that come much closer to a native New Yorker's heart.
"Sure, I'll vote for Hillary," said Patrick Macaluso, a highway repairman from Staten Island. "She's just got to do one thing for me: Bring the Giants back to New York."
Pub Date: 2/28/99