Back From West Bank, Hillary Says Yes on Her Senate Race

“Yes,” she said.

In an officially unscripted moment that seemed as spontaneous as a well-rehearsed pas-de-deux at the City Ballet, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience in Manhattan on Nov. 23 that she would, in fact, be a candidate for the U.S. Senate. She made the announcement in a dingy room in the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers on Park Avenue South. The union’s president, Randi Weingarten, popped the question during what had figured to be another dreary question-and-answer session with would-be supporters.

After explaining that she wasn’t shy about raising such matters, Ms. Weingarten asked Mrs. Clinton whether or not she planned to run for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat next year. “Is it Yes or is it No?” Ms. Weingarten asked.

“The answer is Yes,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The national press corps, which had trooped to the U.F.T. headquarters with little anticipation of breaking news story-except for a vague heads-up provided on the Associated Press wire that morning by Clinton adviser Harold Ickes-found itself taken by surprise. In an instant, Mrs. Clinton destroyed the story line of the day: It was her first visit to New York after her diplomatic and political gaffes in the Middle East, and the press was prepared to put her on the defensive over her controversial meeting with Suha Arafat. Instead, she created a story of her own. All the guessing about when, or if, a formal announcement would come, whether or not her husband would be at her side, or her daughter Chelsea, or both, or neither, came to a quick and fairly dignified end.

In a press conference following the U.F.T. event, a relaxed and confident-looking Mrs. Clinton said she “absolutely” wanted President Clinton to campaign with her, saying: “I think he has been a great President for New York and the country.” She said she had “always intended to scale back my duties as First Lady,” and will begin to do just that.

She said Ms. Weingarten’s question came as a surprise.

Mrs. Clinton’s visit to the city came after a week of speculation that she might not run for Mr. Moynihan’s seat after all. A series of polls showed her support slipping, and a high-profile trip to the Middle East turned disastrous when she listened impassively as Mrs. Arafat accused Israel of using poison gas on Palestinian women and children. She delivered her instantly famous kiss on the cheek after Mrs. Arafat’s remarks.

Already impatient and increasingly worried Democrats began grumbling that Mrs. Clinton’s deliberations were going on far too long, that she needed to announce her intentions sooner rather than later. In fact, even as Mrs. Clinton was addressing the press at U.F.T. headquarters, State Senator Carl Kruger, a Democrat of Brooklyn, was announcing his support for the First Lady’s presumed Republican opponent, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Mr. Kruger said he had sent a letter to Mrs. Clinton telling her he was “outraged and shocked” over the First Lady’s Middle East visit. While Mr. Kruger is not a high-profile lawmaker, his defection points to a problem Mrs. Clinton will have to face as she officially prepares to take on Mr. Giuliani in what promises to be one of the state’s most memorable political campaigns.

Mr. Giuliani’s aides already are waging an aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign designed to lock up early support among a range of powerful Jewish leaders. Their strategy is simple: They are lining up the support of Jewish New Yorkers skeptical of the Mideast peace process even as they quietly chip away at the First Lady’s credibility among mainstream Jewish New Yorkers. And many Jewish officials and Democratic politicians privately complain that those efforts have far outpaced Mrs. Clinton’s own bid for Jewish votes, which are critical in what is expected to be a tight race.

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, offered a tactful assessment of Mrs. Clinton’s slow start with Jewish New Yorkers. “Mr. Giuliani has close relationships with many parts of the Jewish community,” he said. “Mrs. Clinton hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

In another development that has spread alarm in Democratic circles, Mr. Giuliani’s advisers have been working feverishly to steer reporters on to the treacherous terrain of Israeli politics. Bruce Teitelbaum, head of the Mayor’s exploratory campaign committee, recently was lurking in the lobby of City Hall, clutching a sheaf of documents and whispering to reporters that Mrs. Clinton should be asked whether Jonathan Pollard, convicted of carrying out espionage for Israel, deserved pardon.

Exasperation crept into the voice of one top supporter of Mrs. Clinton, who said: “She’s made one mistake after another on this stuff, and it seems that Teitelbaum is 20 steps ahead of her at every turn.”

The result is that even groups that Mrs. Clinton is wooing seem to be drifting toward Mr. Giuliani. Several months ago, the First Lady created a huge stir by penning a letter to the head of the powerful Orthodox Union, in which she declared her support for Jerusalem as “the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.” The letter apparently didn’t have the desired effect. Sheila Ganchrow, the wife of the group’s president, Mandell Ganchrow, is throwing a fund-raiser for Mr. Giuliani-a gesture seen by many as having the tacit support of the powerful Mr. Ganchrow. Sources confirmed that Mr. Teitelbaum reached out to the Ganchrow family.

Mr. Teitelbaum’s prominent role in Mr. Giuliani’s campaign is testament to the Mayor’s outreach to Jewish New Yorkers. The highly caffeinated Mr. Teitelbaum is one of City Hall’s more colorful characters. On down days, he shows up at City Hall in jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap, clutching a Starbucks cup. Once, after a New York Times piece described an interview during which he repeatedly interrupted an employee even as he devoured two bananas, he was overheard to remark: “So I’m overzealous. So what?”

A Well-Connected Ally

For his part, Mr. Giuliani has expressed vast confidence in Mr. Teitelbaum. And mayoral advisers have said Mr. Teitelbaum was hired primarily because of his connections to wealthy Jewish donors and other prominent Jewish leaders.

But some prominent members of the Jewish community have been turned off by his zealotry. A major Jewish leader said he had racked up a long enemies list. “Teitelbaum has alienated a lot of people over the years,” the leader said. “He has an arrogant style. Many people don’t feel that he will benefit Giuliani, who seems to be very close to him.”

Mr. Teitelbaum declined to comment on any aspect of this story.

Either way, time has shown that Mr. Giuliani was right to identify Jewish voters as crucial to his Senate ambitions. After all, polls show that the race is likely to be decided by a small core of undecided voters, many of whom are Jewish. And conventional political wisdom has it that Democrats need two-thirds of the Jewish vote to win statewide races. Mrs. Clinton currently commands a shade more than 50 percent.

In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s plight among Jewish New Yorkers has grown so dire that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, an ally of the Clintons, recently offered her a high-profile boost, telling a group of American Jewish leaders on Nov. 21 that her trip to the Middle East had been “highly successful.”

Despite Mrs. Clinton’s debacle during her trip to Israel, Mr. Giuliani’s supporters concede their early efforts to wound Mrs. Clinton are fraught with all sorts of political peril. Mayoral aides appear to be reaching out primarily to Jewish New Yorkers who are hawkish about the peace process. That risks alienating mainstream Jewish voters who are at the core of the state’s undecided voters.

“Giuliani appeals to ‘Israel, right or wrong’ Jews-and not so much to the kind of Reform Jews that accept a certain amount of friendly or constructive criticism,” said Rabbi Peter Schaktman, the acting director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues. “You could actually see a backlash among less hawkish Jewish voters.”

Indeed, Mr. Giuliani already is shaking off criticism that his campaign is behind a spate of harsh anti-Hillary ads launched by the Washington-based Republican Jewish Coalition. The ads intone, in part: “It’s sad. While Israel sacrifices for peace, Arafat spreads hatred and lies. And Hillary embraces her.”

Unconnected Connections

Mr. Teitelbaum has said the Mayor has no connection to the ads. In fact, the Mayor does have several links to the group, though the connections may have nothing to do with the ads. Matthew Brooks, the organization’s executive director, confirmed in an interview with The Observer that Frank Luntz, Mr. Giuliani’s pollster, did some focus group work for the group in the summer of 1998. What’s more, one of the group’s honorary chairmen is George Klein, a powerful Manhattan-based developer who is a key fund-raiser for Mr. Giuliani.

Ironically, Mrs. Clinton’s political gaffes aside, some Jewish leaders note that Mrs. Clinton’s positions on Jewish issues are closer to the mainstream than the Mayor’s. Some Jewish leaders note that one of his most prominent supporters in his first two campaigns for Mayor was former Assembly member Dov Hikind of Brooklyn. Mr. Hikind was a member of the militant Jewish Defense League and was long close to anti-Arab extremist Meir Kahane.

“There is a perception that his hawkishness could be pandering to Jewish voters,” Mr. Schaktman said. “That might cost him some votes with liberal Jews.”

There’s no question that Mr. Giuliani has cracked the Democratic hold on Jewish voters in New York City. The question is whether these inroads will translate into support in a statewide race. “If Jews are nervous enough about seeing Trent Lott continue as majority leader of the United States Senate,” said John Marino, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, “then they might say, ‘Sorry, Rudy, we love you, but you’re not the right one for us.’”