Can Hillary Win?

I was wrong. Again. Count me among those who did not believe Hillary Clinton would, in the end, make the New York Senate race.

"Too risky. It's odds-against that she can win it and she will come to realize that. Going to be too down-and-dirty - nasty enough to gag a buzzard - and she will come to know she neither really wants or needs that. The woman needs a rest from soul-searching, mean controversy and she'll come to realize that.

"She can become a kind of 'First Lady of the World' by staying out of elective politics for awhile. Take a high-profile, travel-the-world, do-good job with the UN. Or head the Red Cross. Something like that for awhile. Recharge, review, reflect for a bit. Then run for something. She'll come around to that view soon enough to avoid the quicksand swamp that is New York politics."

That's what I thought. But, as has so often been the case in the past, I was wrong.

As of Sunday, there she is: Miss New York Democrat. Er, correction: Ms. New York Democrat. (I don't really think she wants to be called "Mrs. New York Democrat," although, come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea if one could just get past the political incorrectness of the thing — which, of course, neither we nor she can or will).

Apparently what happened is that a combination of longtime friend Harold Ickes, congressional power Charlie Rangel, her husband and her own instinct and ambition convinced her that this was the right race at the right time in the right place.

Some of the arguments for it had to be along these lines: "Win this race, Hillary, and you've got a shot, a good shot, at being president someday. 'First Woman President of the United States.' How does that sound? And, by the way, if you don't run and win the 2000 U.S. Senate race in New York, you know who's going to win it and be positioned to be president someday? Old Rudolph Giuliani, that's who. And you know who and what he is and what he stands for — everything you abhor. So come on, woman, do it. It's doable, and with our help, you can do it."

Among the many problems with this line of reasoning was and is "our help" means the alleged "New York Democratic Party." Trouble is, for most intents and purposes there is no New York Democratic party organization. The Republicans have one in New York. The Democrats don't. What they have in New York is a dysfunctional family — a mess, not a party.

Anyway, now she's in and the question is whether she can win.

The answer is yes. But it's still odds-against. Indeed, more so now than even a few months ago. And if she is to buck the odds and win, she has to hurry and get her stuff together.

So far, together she has not been. Not politically. Her staff, her campaign and her own performance have been spotty and erratic at best. At worst, all three have been a kind of "Original Amateur Hour" of politics with signs of owing much to the early works of the Marx Brother: The Yankees cap fiasco. The Puerto Rican terrorists pardon business. The mistake with Mrs. Arafat. The house mortgage deal. It has been, literally, just one damn thing after another.

Dan Rather
All of which led to the question, still open, "Does she just have a tin ear for New York politics?"

None of which is fatal unless such continues.

What's needed, straight away and quickly, is a sharply focused, tightly controlled campaign and a disciplined candidate — a candidate who gets on and stays on message. (Also, a candidate who is friendly and accessible — to the public and the press — and a staff that is ditto. But more about that later.)

Ah, but what message?

For openers, something short and simple. Such as, "Schools and healthcare. In both, our children need and deserve better. They are what I'm about. I'll fight to make them both better." If not that, then something — anything — understandable and uncomplicated. And the something should be carefully thought through for special appeal to swing voters, most especially women swing voters in the suburbs. Because these voters hold the balance of power in this race.

Both Clintons have a justifiable reputation for over-complicating policy matters. On past performance she's worse than he is. Together the Clintons can make complicated a two-car motorcade. For Candidate Hillary this has to stop.

She would do well to take a page from Ronald Reagan's playbook. Decide what, say, four things she cares, really cares, about. Spell them out, concentrate on them and pound them home, hard, relentlessly. The press may get sick of them, or at least hearing her harp on them, but permeating voters with a steady, constant message takes time, dedication, discipline — and repetition.

The point here is that voters must become convinced, absolutely convinced that Mrs. Clinton wants the Senate job for some reason besides personal ambition. And they are not, not yet, convinced of that. There has to be some rock-hard policy foundation for her campaign. So far, none exists. Or, at a minimum, none has been sufficiently articulated.

Hillary Clinton is a marvelous speaker. She is especially good speaking extemporaneously, better than her husband, in the opinion of many who have heard her over the years. (For one thing, her speeches tend to be shorter).

One weakness she has as a speaker is that sometimes she comes through with what many people take as too heavy an air of righteousness. This is off-putting and needs immediate attention. That is, correction.

It was on unflattering display during parts of her official announcement speech Sunday. Mayor Giuliani suffers from some of the same, at ties every more than Mrs. Clinton. But all the more reason she should eliminate any hint of it in future.

Humility is attractive in anyone, especially in politics. (Let the record show that it's in even shorter supply among journalists, including this one, than it is among politicians.) This, again, goes to the question of how a candidate's personality and character are perceived by voters.

But overall and in the main, Hillary is terrific on her feet in front of audiences large and small.

So get her a short, simple, tightly-focused message and get her out there. Giuliani is no slouch himself. And he's on voters like white on rice. On message, all the time. As in, "I cut crime in the crime capital of America." Up to and including now, Mrs. Clinton's message has been soft as a rotten peach.

This is not to suggest that a good, hard message, simple and short is a cure-all for what ails the First Lady's campaign. It isn't.

A big race in a big state such as this one is complex and must be fought on many levels. This must be borne in mind when one considers reports that Hillary's staff is debating whether the campaign should be selling Hillary Clinton or pushing policy initiatives that swing voters say they favor.

The debate should last about five seconds. The answer, of course, is both. Ideology matters in this race. Which means substance matters. But not more than personality and character.

In most races, and this one is no exception, how a candidate comes through to voters aces policy positions. Senator John McCain has just demonstrated this anew in his rout of Gov. George Bush in the New Hampshire primary.

This brings us back to accessibility. McCain was on television more than Regis Philbin in New Hampshire. Every news program, every talk show, radio and television, day and night, weekdays, weekends and holidays. Any reporter with a pad, mike, camera or all three got face time. Plenty and repeatedly.

He set a new meet record for town forums and coffee shop chats. He did it all with a smile, a constant air of spontaneity and with not even a whiff of pretense. Flexibility and accessibility were keys to his success.

As they can be with Mrs. Clinton. But only if she changes. And fast. Same, only more so, with her staff.

As for ideology, so far Giuliani has successfully cast himself as the centrist, Hillary as champion of the die-hard left. Changing this is the biggest challenge of the Clinton Senate campaign.

If she cannot and does not change the way she and the mayor are perceived by swing voters, her candidacy is doomed.

Older people, working people (especially including school teachers), and swing voters in the suburbs are her hope. Getting back the overwhelming lead New York City usually gives any Democrat but has yet to give Mrs. Clinton is key. The number of Democratic women in the city who say they are inclined to vote for Giuliani not H. Clinton is larger than she may have been told. Perhapshe can win them over but not without a lot of work.

Cutting into the margins upstate usually given to Republicans, obviously, is another key. Just as obviously Republican and swing-vote women upstate will decide whether this is done. This Mrs. Clinton and her staff do seem to fully understand and they appear to be off to a good start on it. But only a start.

Nobody said any of this was going to be easy. And nobody was right.

She can win, but it's all uphill. And based on present indications, don't bet the rent money on it.

But overnight is a long time in politics. A week is forever. The election isn't until November. There is time. But just barely. To win, Hillary Clinton has to get lucky, get moving, and get Giuliani to make some big mistakes.

Footnote: Warning. The writer of this is a journalist, not a political consultant. And, unlike political consultants, journalists often are wrong in their analyses of campaigns and campaign strategy. You may want to take this into account while considering the analysis above, especially if you're involved in the Clinton or Giuliani campaigns.

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