Clinton's quasi-candidacy rattles nerves; New York Democrats fear she might change her mind and not run


WASHINGTON -- Amid growing concern that Hillary Rodham Clinton will abandon the New York Senate race, anxious Democrats are urging the first lady to commit fully to her campaign and to energize the state's party faithful.

Some New York Democrats are vexed by what they call a static campaign by a candidate who has yet to officially announce she is running.

Even as the campaign vows Clinton is steaming ahead, some worry that after a drop in the polls and a series of campaign flaps, the first lady is losing her nerve.

"There's always this edge of fear that maybe she will change her mind," said Norman Adler, a New York political consultant.

"There's this nervousness."

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat, said he and three other New York Democratic congressmen were sitting in the members' cafeteria on Capitol Hill yesterday wringing their hands over the Senate race next year.

" 'Is the reason there's no campaign structure because she's not going to run?' That was the discussion at lunch, and some people were getting upset. They don't know," said Serrano, who withdrew his support for Clinton after she opposed the release of 16 imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists this year.

"They're terrified they won't have a candidate or will have to run out and get one."

If Clinton announces her candidacy, she isn't likely to do so until February, postponed from the planned January date.

She has not hired a campaign manager or moved the nerve center of her operation to New York.

Most important, some Democrats say, Clinton has spent so much time on her quiet "listening tours" that she has not galvanized her supporters or honed a consistent campaign message.

Trying to quell this week's will-she-or-won't-she rumors, Howard Wolfson, the press secretary for Clinton's Senate exploratory committee, said the first lady is "absolutely committed to this process" and that those who doubt that commitment do not know Clinton.

"If she turned tail every time she saw a bad headline, she wouldn't be here now," Wolfson said, adding that Clinton has visited 40 New York counties in her nascent campaign.

"When she makes a commitment, she sticks to it."

This week, two top New York Democrats -- Judith Hope, the state party chairman, and state Comptroller H. Carl McCall -- publicly urged the first lady to get her campaign in gear, spend more time in New York and formally declare her bid.

Prospective Republican rival and New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has not announced his candidacy either, has steadily gained on Clinton in the polls since she announced her exploratory committee over the summer.

Some longtime allies are withholding their help on fund raising, constituent outreach and New York campaign advice until Clinton declares herself a candidate.

"I can't wait for her to announce and get a professional campaign team," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Harlem Democrat who is staying in the background until there is an official campaign.

"I don't work with exploratory candidates. I don't understand it. I don't want to learn about it. It's nonexistent. It goes through your fingers."

The first lady's campaign is expected to announce a manager before the end of the year, and Clinton is preparing to move into her new home in the New York suburb of Chappaqua after the holiday season.

"The Democrats ought to stop being nervous and take a long-term view," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "She's going to be a candidate. The Democrats will all line up behind her. She's raising money. They have an operation."

Ammunition for GOP

But Clinton is still an almost-candidate, a status that allows Republicans to cast her as not fully engaged.

"There's this sense that she's really projecting herself as something of an elitist, this imperial notion of traveling throughout the state in very contrived environments where she's quote unquote listening," said Rep. John E. Sweeney, an upstate New York Republican. "That just doesn't connect."

The campaign has suffered lately. Clinton was criticized for using Democratic Party soft money to help finance her first television ads. Similar use of unrestricted campaign funds drew fire from reformers when her husband did it in the 1996 campaign.

Criticized on Israel trip

She ran into more trouble last week during her trip to the Middle East, where she was criticized for not speaking up in the West Bank town of Ramallah when Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, gave a speech accusing Israel of poisoning Palestinians.

Clinton later condemned the remarks, but some Jewish leaders criticized her initial silence and her kissing Mrs. Arafat.

Some supporters feel too much is being made of these stories. "What was she supposed to do, slap her?" Rangel said of Clinton's reaction to Arafat.

Republicans have gotten extra mileage out of her problems for weeks.

"It is perhaps the most inept campaign we have seen in New York in some time," said New York Republican consultant Kieran Mahoney.

All of this comes on the heels of mini-embarrassments that some believe would have been avoided with more New York control of her campaign.

Whether she was riling New Yorkers with her sudden declaration of love for the Yankees or infuriating many Puerto Ricans with her opposition to the release of the jailed Puerto Rican nationalists, her moves in New York have been fodder for Giuliani supporters.

"The first lady's only thumbprint has been listening, and she's going to run against the guy whose thumbprint is he tamed New York City," said Adler.

"I don't think those two are comparable. Her campaign just has not settled on a message."

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