Even if Hillary Rodham Clinton ultimately chooses not to run for the U.S. Senate from New York, she already has done the state an important service by demonstrating the surprising vulnerability of her most likely Republican opponent. The recent wave of manic media coverage has emphasized the many difficult burdens Mrs. Clinton would shoulder in this hypothetical contest, but Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would have to run against her lugging some rather heavy baggage, too.
The most onerous load may well be Mr. Giuliani’s own personality. Apparently, the more people see of the Mayor these days, the less they like him. With his repellent swaggering on the Sunday talk shows, he actually managed to push his poll numbers down by several points, leaving Mrs. Clinton with an 18-point lead in the latest survey taken by Quinnipiac College.
Polls at this early moment are only suggestive, not dispositive, yet they can provide certain clues about the relative strength of a well-known politician like Mr. Giuliani. The theory supporting a Giuliani Senate candidacy was that the Mayor would enter a statewide race with an unusually secure base in usually Democratic New York City. That urban base, combined with traditional Republican strength upstate, was supposed to make him the prohibitive favorite against any Democrat.
Unfortunately for Hizzoner, he isn’t nearly as popular as he used to be, even on his home turf. Over the past few months, his favorable rating in the city has dropped nearly 20 points and now hovers somewhere below 50 percent. Among his negatives is the police killing of Amadou Diallo, which has sunk his standing in the black and Latino communities where he formerly enjoyed growing approval. The result, in Quinnipiac’s head-to-head matchup against Mrs. Clinton, is an overwhelming rejection of his potential Senate bid in the five boroughs, by nearly 40 points.
The Mayor fares better in the downstate suburbs, but upstate voters aren’t exactly in love with him, and in fact they never were. Right now, Mrs. Clinton beats him in New York’s northern and western regions, albeit by a much smaller margin than here in the city. National pundits who are shocked by those results probably don’t remember (or never knew) that Mr. Giuliani’s political endorsements have invariably hurt rather than helped his allies among upstate voters. Local political consultants often laugh about the “kiss of death” he administered to Mario Cuomo in 1994, to Bob Dole in 1996, and to Alfonse D’Amato last year. His incessant feuding with Gov. George Pataki is still another encumbrance.
So much for the prospect of an unbeatable Mr. Giuliani. To anyone familiar with New York’s political history, he is merely the latest Mayor to believe, quite wrongly, that his local achievements would lift him like an enraptured saint into higher office. Ed Koch suffered from the same delusion after a series of stupid editorials in the New York Post convinced him to run for Governor in 1982. Despite his immense popularity as Mayor, Mr. Koch soon found out how worthless Rupert Murdoch’s advice could be, when he lost the Democratic primary to a Lieutenant Governor named Mario Cuomo. And 10 years before the Koch debacle, John Lindsay bombed as a Presidential candidate. No New York Mayor has run successfully for Governor, Senator or President in more than a century.
That is not to say Mr. Giuliani should pass up the race; given term limits, his only other realistic choice would be to retire. He has a record of real accomplishment-though not quite as superlative as he boasts-and his moderate Republicanism is much needed by his impeachment-addled party.
But if the Mayor does find himself in a campaign against the First Lady, he would do well to follow his own advice of emphasizing philosophical differences rather than personal attacks. Assuming those remarks were sincere, he might direct that his political surrogates not bark too loudly at Mrs. Clinton about her marriage, her financial investments or her appearances before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury. From all appearances, Mr. Giuliani is in no position to exploit anybody else’s marital discord. Smirking references to the Clintons’ problems will only draw unwanted attention to his domestic situation, and increase the gigantic gender gap.
Whenever he is tempted to mention Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate or any other moldy “scandal,” the Mayor should remind himself about Mr. D’Amato-whose trajectory toward resounding defeat began with the Senate Whitewater hearings.
As for Mrs. Clinton’s remark about a Palestinian state, Mr. Giuliani should think carefully before he opens his mouth again. Foreign policy always deserves serious discussion in a Senate race. Provincial pandering that undermines the Middle East peace process, however, will rekindle unpleasant memories of his past clumsy meddling in international affairs. And what will the Mayor say when Leah Rabin, the acerbic widow of Israel’s late, great Prime Minister, shows up to slap him upside his comb-over?
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.