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Celebrity status haunts, helps Clinton


POMONA, N.Y. - In the throng surrounding Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton at a sheet metal workers' picnic just outside New York City, the shouting erupts:

"Please give me an autograph - please!"

"She acknowledged me - did you see that?"

"Move it - I'm getting choked."

"I got a picture right square in her face!"

A man on the public address system is calling for order while Secret Service agents dressed in country casual outfits yell for everyone to take three steps back. Clinton is a tiny dot at the center of it all, signing T-shirts, scraps of paper, anything - a rock star in a permanent-press pantsuit.

The candidate whose very presence has inspired a mini-industry of hostile literature, not to mention a raft of pundits who loathe her, is working overtime to combat the visceral reactions that quickly made this campaign into a referendum on her tumultuous reign as first lady.

In the past week, Clinton pulled slightly ahead in polls for the first time in the 14 months since this race began. Only a sliver of the electorate - less than 10 percent - remains undecided, the rest loving or hating her from the start and remaining unmoved in a deadlocked contest.

Rage about her candidacy thrives. It began with her decision to run as a celebrity candidate without having lived in New York, but quickly moved to her ill-fated 1993 effort on health care and encompassed more amorphous frustrations with the Clinton era as a whole.

But even with the loaded reactions the word "Clinton" inspires, her outsider stardom may yet be the best campaign tool she has, and her campaign is betting that fascination with her will translate into votes.

At the picnic, Michael Westphal, a 66-year-old father and son of sheet metal workers, though not one himself, watches with rapt attention as Clinton works the crowd. Though a Democrat, he complains that she should go back to Arkansas, that he wouldn't vote for her because she isn't a native New Yorker. But even as he grumbles, the candidate starts moving closer and his face brightens. "Is she coming over?" he asks. "I wouldn't mind giving her a hug."

Clinton's opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican congressman from Long Island, is betting that Clinton's other image - that of the imperial candidate, swooping in on New York from on high - will win him the campaign.

"You don't usually get huge emotional responses to candidates, but she does, and it's all because she's so well-known," says New York pollster Maurice "Mickey" Carroll. "Let's face it. She wouldn't be a candidate if she wasn't a celebrity, but it makes it difficult for her. When you've been on the front page for eight years, it gives people a lot of time to form opinions."

These days, she tries for spontaneity, hoping to seem more folksy than regal. Whether she is hugging a supporter or complimenting a reporter on her lipstick or joking about her new hometown, her tone is informal. (The strategy has its pitfalls: While Lazio was declaring "Ich bin ein New Yorker" at a German-American parade last weekend, Clinton was asking, "What is it, Chappaquidians? Chappa what? Chappaquinians? What do we call ourselves?" The answer: Residents of Chappaqua.)

Clinton has learned to capitalize on the unscripted. At the picnic here, a little girl with a painted face walks up and takes her hand. The first lady - who campaigns solely as "Hillary!" as if she's as familiar to New Yorkers as their next-door neighbors - sweetly hangs onto it as she rips into Lazio and the Republican leadership. The crowd roars as Clinton looks at the girl and adds, "Even the children know who you should vote for!"

But as Clinton seeks greater political intimacy, she does so guardedly. In a visit to a Buffalo diner, the campaign allows cameras but no sound technicians, and a reporter complains bitterly before he is allowed to tape what Clinton says inside.

Later, some reporters grouse to her aides that the candidate doesn't answer questions about the little things that would make her seem more human - they know she loves decorating her new house, but nobody has a clue what colors her rooms are. Complicating efforts at familiarity: The Secret Service often pens reporters behind yellow crime-scene tape.

Part of her communication problems are explained by fame; the famous seem impenetrable. But Clinton also might be to blame. At Mark Twain Intermediate School in Coney Island, where she appears with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman, the kids - enthusiastic at first -want to know if she dreaded going to school. She responds with a clunky endorsement of a good public school education. They seem bored. She's lost them.

'It's genius'

In a race largely fought on television in sprawling New York, the picture is everything and Clinton knows it. When Clinton visits the Buffalo diner, she knows what to do when she spots a baby in pink fleece. Instead of kissing her, Clinton lifts her high above her head and beams up at her.

"Brilliant," a New York photographer concludes from the scrum when the moment has passed. "Most people just kiss them, but if you lift them up in the air, that makes the shot. Bill Clinton invented that. It's genius."

Clinton is holding more news conferences of late and has handled her outsider problems head-on. Although she had never had to deal with local issues on this level before, Clinton repeatedly reminds her audience how many people she's talked to and counties she has visited (all 62).

To the faithful, the more exposure the better. At the fair in Chappaqua, a pricey Westchester County hamlet, Hillary buttons abound. A troupe of girls in spangled mini-dresses stops its dance routine to gawk at her. A woman picks up her poodle so it won't get trampled in the crush. The Lazio booth waits for business (volunteer Patricia Spencer argues that her neighbors fear they'll get audited if they seem critical of Clinton's candidacy).

Clinton has become deft in dealing with a serious vulnerability: the Monica Lewinsky mess. One of her biggest applause lines suggests that her ability to stand by her husband in the scandal speaks volumes about her character.

"There's one thing I hope you know about me by now," she tells supporters at a Buffalo rally, closing with a vow that she repeats around the state. "When I tell you I'll stick with you, I'll stick with you."

"What she means is, she stuck with her husband so she'll stick with us," says Terri Aquino, a 55-year-old Buffalo native who cheers her at the rally. "I definitely read it that way. I loved that part."

'No different from me'

The Lewinsky matter has lurked in the shadows of this campaign from the start. One reason Clinton fails to capture a majority in a state with almost 2 million more Democrats than Republicans is that white professional women fault her for staying with her husband, polls show, although the latest surveys show Clinton finally gaining an edge here as well.

Maryann Mason understands why people feel this way - "Look how they treated Mary Jo Buttafuoco," she says, remembering the scorn for the Long Island housewife's initial decision to stick with her husband after his teen-age mistress shot her. But Mason, a Long Island housewife, feels more devoted to Clinton the more she hears her assailed.

"She's a human being - she's no different from me," says Mason, a 34-year-old mother with her new baby. "She's been through real trials and tribulations, and any woman in this world can relate to her."

Lazio, who recently showed up at a Mets game and merrily wiped his feet on a skybox doormat featuring Clinton declaring herself a Yankee fan, has the support of the fiercest critics.

Just before Clinton and Lazio's debate last week, in which some critics believed Lazio might have drummed up sympathy for his opponent by being too aggressive, Clinton held the edge by 49 percent to Lazio's 44 percent, according to polls by Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and Quinnipiac University.

It speaks to the depth of the national anti-Hillary sentiment that Lazio has raised enough money to compete with Clinton despite his late entry after New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani decided in May not to run. Though the president helps Clinton with her fund-raisers (he accompanied her to two last week), Lazio has $10.2 million to spend on the fall season, compared with her $7.1 million, their most recent campaign filings show.

But Clinton has something he doesn't: For better or worse, everyone in New York knows who she is - and in politics, that's often half the battle.

At a recent Buffalo event, a woman spots her and blurts, "I saw you on TV!" Clinton takes the opening. "Here I am," she declares. "In the flesh."

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