WASHINGTON -- Attacked for months over the costs to taxpayers generated by her New York campaign trips, Hillary Rodham Clinton now finds herself criticized for her foreign travel, which opponents are calling a not-so-oblique campaign tool in her race for the Senate in New York.
Clinton's two-day trip to Israel, which began yesterday, is raising ethical questions: The problem, some say, is that no one is quite sure which hat Clinton is wearing on which day -- whether she is first lady, undeclared Senate candidate or some uncomfortable amalgam of the two.
"Since Hillary has floated the idea of running for Senate all the way back in January, it's been an odd coincidence all the things that have fallen into place at the White House for her to do," said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the New York Republican State Committee. "Like most of the moves the Clintons make, this trip to Israel looks like it is very political -- it's a trip she's taking to bolster her sagging poll numbers up in New York. Campaigning on taxpayer dollars."
Clinton enjoys many benefits as a first lady. She is also receiving $100,000 in soft money from the Democratic Party -- which some say is special treatment because of her status -- for issue advertising in New York that begins this week.
One of the trickiest issues relates to her travel, and whether official trips that might help her standing in New York should qualify as campaign expenses.
"The idea that taxpayer money is being spent for something that will benefit Hillary Clinton's campaign is somewhat disconcerting," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. "In this atmosphere, nothing she does will ever appear innocent. This is going to come up frequently -- her candidacy puts us in uncharted ethical waters almost every day."
Other political candidates have made the trek to Israel before -- Vice President George Bush arrived in Israel during his presidential campaign in 1986, with a camera crew shooting footage for future campaign commercials -- but few do so with the seal of a White House goodwill mission.
Clinton supporters counter that this trip was scheduled months ago, not engineered to address her recent flagging poll numbers.
"She is the first lady, and she's probably the most important goodwill ambassador our country has," said Clinton spokeswoman Marsha Berry. "She is performing that role."
Democrats say that so much attention is focused on the New York Senate race that the first lady is barely able to perform any of her typical duties without raising suspicion.
"The fact is, we've never had a first lady consider making a run for any office, so people just aren't used to this," said Matthew Hiltzik, spokesman for the New York State Democratic Committee. "She should have the same standard as a member of the first or second family running for re-election or another office."
When she travels for campaign purposes, Clinton has vowed to reimburse the government for the cost of a first-class commercial plane ticket for herself and much of her staff. Republicans object: An analysis by the Republican National Committee over the summer estimated that each of Clinton's trips to New York cost taxpayers at least $20,000.
New York enjoys a long tradition of local candidates campaigning in Israel. New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Clinton's likely GOP challenger in the Senate race, has been to Israel three times -- twice as mayor. In 1995, he traveled there on a taxpayer-funded trip with other New York politicians for the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His other trips have been sponsored by a consortium of Jewish groups.
"Going to Israel is in the political gray matter of every politician in New York," said Jeff Plaut, a Democratic strategist in New York. "Clinton wants to burnish up her credentials in New York state."
The first lady -- a guest of Nava Barak, wife of Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister -- spent yesterday touring a Youth Crisis Center in Tel Aviv and spoke at a conference on children and violence at Tel Aviv University.
With the election a year away, opinion polls in New York show that a stunning number of voters already have made up their minds.
Any ethnic bloc will be hotly contested, but the Jewish vote perhaps even more so because this electorate has shown that it can support Giuliani, having helped elect him mayor twice as a moderate Republican in the city.
After initially trailing Clinton in the polls, Giuliani shows a slight lead over Clinton -- 47 percent to 42 percent -- in a survey of 1,109 registered voters that was released yesterday by the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute.
Among Jewish voters surveyed, 46 percent supported Clinton to 43 percent for Giuliani -- a whopping difference from the last New York Senate race, when Charles E. Schumer, then a Democratic congressman from New York City, won the election with about 75 percent of the Jewish vote.
"Granted, Schumer was a Jewish candidate, but Clinton's numbers are a little low in the Jewish community," said Maurice Carroll, who heads the institute. "She ought to be doing better than that."
Clinton is trying to reach out to the Jewish community. She has met with Jewish leaders upset about her remarks favoring Palestinian statehood and called last summer for recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and for the U.S. Embassy to be moved there -- an emotional issue for Jews that the Clinton administration and most Palestinians oppose.