Waiting for Hillary Is a Stale Pastime; Democrats Get Antsy

Even for the hardest-core of New York political addicts, it is getting ever so slightly stale to wait for Hillary Rodham Godot.

“How many conversations can you have with somebody saying, ‘I heard from somebody who knows Harold Ickes that she’s definitely thinking she may or may not run?’” mused Jay Rabinowitz, a Democratic Party operative who showed up at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, hosted by the New York State Democratic Committee at the Grand Hyatt on April 29.

On the other hand, for those who buy tickets for rubber chicken, the fact that something is slightly stale is no reason not to devour it ravenously. And so it was at the Grand Hyatt, with all present dissecting all possible inferences to be made from all possible hints: from every shoulder pat or cheek peck bestowed by Mr. Ickes upon this or that supplicant; from the brilliant blue-eye flashes beamed by the First Lady at every word that fell from the lips of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, seated to her left; from the level of coughs and murmurs during her speech, which was flatteringly low, considering that the sentiments she expressed, perfectly wholesome but bland as beige, went down just like cream of wheat.

Mr. Ickes is, of course, the legendarily loyal Clinton confidant who has stuck with the First Couple through crises ideological, personal and, considering his Alps of legal bills, financial. But this evening, he was, for all intents and purposes, God. Displaying what his friends called an unusual ease and sociability, the universally acknowledged guru and gatekeeper to the Undecided One worked the room, sitting only briefly to take short, efficient sips of wine and bites of salad. From the back of the ballroom, behind the velvet rope and the iron barrier where the press had been herded à la cattle, one could get only the faintest whiff of Mr. Ickes’ vindication, but an unmistakable whiff it was: He had, after all, been one of the first to back Bill Clinton in the earliest days of 1992 over the objections of his New York liberal friends, who were rooting for Senator Tom Harkin or some such Pleistocene; the very same liberals, and didn’t the whole room know it, who were now so joyfully puckering up to his posterior.

Mr. Ickes is widely, and perhaps somewhat overemphatically, depicted as the only person apart from the First Lady who really knows a single thing about her thinking. But pending his decision to unburden himself to The Observer , as he has thus far declined to do, a few crystals of consensus were beginning to form.

The first, and most obvious, is that the First Lady wants to run. “When she came back from Africa, she figured that she could lose, but she could cope with losing, which everyone regards as a major step in the decision-making process,” said a source close to Team Hillary.

“She is clearly running when she’s leaving the big room to go to the small room to talk to the Young Democrats,” said Assembly member Herman (Denny) Farrell, chair of the Democrat Party in New York County; a variation on the she-is-clearly-running-when theme that has been sounded by the otherwise unfathomable frequency of her travel to Buffalo; her recent address to the Giuliani-despising New York State Union of Teachers; and her recently developed fascination with the May 25 special election to replace Joe Holland, the retiring Republican State Senator of Rockland County, whose seat the state’s Republicans have pledged more than $1 million to save.

“She knew all about the race-more than a lot of local politicians in New York,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, chair of the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee. “She had her own ideas on how she could help.”

“She’s concerned about the mechanics,” added Mr. Farrell.

Indeed, Mrs. Clinton has reportedly voiced fears of experiencing technical difficulties involving everything from how to run while tethered to the Secret Service to how to announce herself an enthusiastic New Yorker without seeming to distance herself from the baffling marriage based in Washington, D.C. One has not heard, but would not be at all surprised to hear, of a further apprehension on the First Lady’s part as to how she could ever distance herself, however slightly and respectfully, from any aspect of the Administration that might flare unflatteringly in the course of a campaign. Even in a state that has consistently demonstrated a near-unconditional love for both Clintons, a candidate can sometimes use a little wriggle room from the Vatican. Small example: Local 1199 of the National Health and Human Service Employees Union was among those who sued the Clinton Administration over its attempt to exercise the line-item veto in a way that the plaintiffs, including Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, deemed deleterious to the health care system in New York. Yet New York City’s largest hospital workers union is now among those in the forefront of the draft-Hillary movement. In the end, such little ironies may turn out to be evidence that intraparty policy fissures are easily subsumed in the face of an opponent-or evidence that every little crack can be exploited by that opponent.

But for the moment, at least, the feeling is that such considerations are obstacles for Mrs. Clinton to negotiate, not roadblocks to turn her back.

“They’re getting to the point now that they are identifying the lines of an attack in a campaign,” said a Democrat in the state government. At a recent dinner with Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Ickes discussed leadership (read: personality) issues, an enormous gender gap, the Mayor’s own problems with upstaters, and education as points for Mrs. Clinton to exploit against Mr. Giuliani. “He went on and on about what an extraordinary mistake that Giuliani is making going after the school board,” said the source. “Ickes thinks this will make the liberals and the blacks turn against [Mr. Giuliani].”

Needless to say, the combination of the fact that liberals and minorities have not lately been feeling themselves in need of another reason to turn against the Mayor, with the fact that they already adore the First Lady, is a potent plus for her candidacy. In light of the huge get-out-the-vote efforts that the Democrats’ Presidential nominee will no doubt mount in communities of color, this formula becomes even more favorable. Still, the desire that Mrs. Clinton not supply those eager to paint her as a wild-eyed liberal with brush, oils and canvas is beginning to be expressed. “The advice to Hillary and to Ickes from [State Comptroller Carl] McCall and Spitzer has been to broaden the context,” said the government source.

Perhaps surprisingly, given recent quibbling between national and state Republicans as to the desirability of crowning Mr. Giuliani their candidate, every calculation of Mrs. Clinton’s camp seems to be predicated entirely on the assumption that Mr. Giuliani will be their opponent. This assumption is based less on a sense that the Mayor could not lose a primary to a candidate such as Representative Rick Lazio of Long Island, than on a sense that Mr. Lazio will probably not enter the primary. Anyway, a Lazio upset is seen as making the First Lady’s task, or at least the math of it, simpler than a run against Mr. Giuliani would be: She would revert to the traditional Democratic math of an easy win downstate, and a sufficient showing upstate.

Whatever his recent problems, Mr. Giuliani remains a Republican twice sent to City Hall by an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and that throws all the old numbers out of whack. “Giuliani can be dangerous for us and we know it,” said Mr. Farrell. “Our battle is to win New York City overwhelmingly over someone who has been the Mayor.”

As for the particulars, the nascent Team Hillary, like the old Soviet Union as seen by Winston Churchill, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”-or trying very hard to be. Clearly, the campaign’s shots would be significantly called by Mr. Ickes, but that is it for clarity. The assumption that Washington, D.C.-based consultant David Doak had a lock on the media contract was complicated by rumors that New Yorker Hank Morris had been contacted; Mr. Morris refused to comment. Pollster Tom Kiley, who is based in Boston but works for both Mr. McCall and the Assembly’s Democrats, was getting frequent mention as the pollster. On the level of organization closer to the ground, strong scuttlebutt had it that Democratic National Committee vice chair Bill Lynch, Housing and Urban Development representative Bill DeBlasio and Jennifer Cunningham, executive director of the New York State Council of Unions and a confidante of Local 1199 president Dennis Rivera, have been sending out just-in-case feelers to the reputed cream of the young-Democrat crop. That includes Peter Vallone’s fund-raiser Gabrielle Fialkoff; Andy Grossman, director of the 1998 statewide campaign; Karen Persichelli Keogh, director of operations for the City Council, and her assistant, Kevin Wardally. (“Not me,” demurred Mr. Lynch. “I’m not in that loop. I’m just one of the colored guys, and she’s already got us.” Ms. Cunningham declined to comment. Mr. DeBlasio did not return calls by press time.)

“There are a lot of discussions going on with the proviso that the First Lady has got to make a decision,” said Cindy Darrison, finance director to Mr. Spitzer. Speaking of Mr. Spitzer, his recent 45-minute White House meeting with the First Lady presumably went some way toward assuaging any impression that, given the position of the Hillary-hated Dick Morris as Spitzer family friend and campaign consultant, he would be cast forever out of the magic loop. That is, of course, assuming that the First Lady will run. For no particular reason that The Observer could discern, most interested parties seemed to peg mid- to late July as the moment of truth; the suggestion that the May 24 fund-raiser for Nita Lowey at which Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to appear would be the perfect time and place to anoint or be anointed met with general snorts of dismissal.

But maybe it shouldn’t: Even for the First Lady, it will be no mean feat to raise $15 million at a rate not more efficient than $2,000 per donor, especially given that the Presidential race will be sopping up some of the soft money and dividing the energies of major finance-committee folk. Back in February, Senator Chuck Schumer told The Observer that a decision date somewhere around April 15 “balances the needs of both people,” referring to Mrs. Clinton and Representative Nita Lowey of Westchester, waiting in the wings. Now he’s giving H.R.C. an extension: “The First Lady needs the time to make the decision that’s right for her,” said Mr. Schumer through his spokesman. “She has the best intentions of New York Democrats at heart, and will do everything she can to make sure that the next senator from New York State is a woman.”

But if she keeps not fishing and not cutting bait, that “woman” might be a Mayor who has been known to don a dress.