The former Mayor of Yonkers, John Spencer, raised eyebrows in Republican circles earlier this month when he hinted at a conspiracy. There was something fishy, he said, aboutthe sudden emergence of Kathleen Troia (K.T.) McFarland, like him a Republican seeking to challenge Senator Hillary Clinton.
“The Clintons are pretty slick. They’ll never have any fingerprints on it,” he said.
Mr. Spencer now says he was joking—“I was doing, like, a Charles Grodin routine,” he insisted—but his suggestion that Mrs. Clinton’s hidden hand has influenced the Republican primary process wasn’t far off. It’s just that far from conspiring against the plainspoken Mr. Spencer, Mrs. Clinton has helped turn him into the front-runner for the Republican nomination to oppose her.
The steady, mocking attacks on Mr. Spencer’s Republican rivals by Clinton allies have helped set the stage for a race that contrasts the guarded, cautious incumbent Senator with a combative Vietnam veteran whose conservative stances put him well to right of New York’s center. Mr. Spencer’s sharp tone could play into what has become a potent feature of Mrs. Clinton’s arsenal: victimhood. Her fund-raising emails have harped on a (thus far) largely nonexistent set of shadowy anti-Hillary groups. And at a time when Mrs. Clinton’s alleged “anger” has become a White House talking point, the Senator’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson, described Mr. Spencer as “an angry man.”
“Hillary would love to run against John Spencer, because he’s someone who might actually enhance the martyr image,” said William O’Reilly, a spokesman for Ms. McFarland. “The more you attack Hillary, the more that martyr status grows.”
Aides to Mrs. Clinton deny that they’ve deliberately promoted Mr. Spencer, arguing that their attacks on his rivals have been more opportunistic than matters of grand strategy. And Mr. Spencer insists that he’s no pushover, pointing to his eight years running the state’s fourth-largest city and to his frank conservative convictions, which include support for the war in Iraq, dissent from Roe v. Wade and a sense that he stands on the opposite side of the great cultural dividing line among baby boomers—the Vietnam War. He said he still regrets that the United States decided to “cut and run.”
“I think it’ll be a great race,” Mr. Spencer said. “I am a total contrast to Mrs. Clinton.”
But as New York Republicans try to sort out their long-shot challenge to the junior Senator, the state Democratic Party has hammered two other would-be Clinton challengers. First there was Jeanine Pirro, whose later press conferences featured Democrats handing out copies of the supposed missing page from her disastrous campaign announcement. (Ms. Pirro is now running for State Attorney General.) Now there is Ms. McFarland, a former Reagan administration official and Upper East Sider who announced her campaign earlier this month. (Mr. Spencer’s reaction to Ms. McFarland’s late entry into the race was an exasperated “What the fuck?”)
Ms. McFarland’s evidently half-baked candidacy has drawn a steady series of derisive press releases from the state Democratic Party. “For KT McFarland: What a Long, Strange Week It’s Been” was a typical headline. It has also drawn some swift research into her spotty attendance at the polls on Election Day. When the story was published in the New York Post, it came as a “total surprise” to the Spencer campaign, one of his aides said, suggesting a Democratic Party source.
State parties traditionally act as surrogates for candidates. In this case, the ties couldn’t be closer. Mr. Wolfson, the main political consultant to the state Democratic Party, is better known as an advisor to Mrs. Clinton, whom he served as campaign communications director in 2000. He denied having a favorite Republican. “It’s hard enough just to keep up with the ever-changing cast of candidates on the other side, much less choose one,” Mr. Wolfson said.
Mr. Spencer, who announced his intention to run last June, was the second to enter the race, after Ed Cox, a Manhattan lawyer whom the Republicans pushed aside in favor of Ms. Pirro.
The ex-mayor—once seen as a G.O.P. moderate and always a political outsider, even among Westchester Republicans—has all but locked up the crucial Conservative Party line, and he seems to hold a firm lead among the Republican activists who could deny Ms. McFarland a spot on a primary ballot.
Over lunch at Rosie’s Bistro Italiano in Bronxville, just across the Bronx River from Yonkers, Mr. Spencer said he was undisturbed by the long odds and offered a strikingly personal contrast with Mrs. Clinton.
“She’s the same age as me; we traveled along life, you know,” he said after outlining his time as an Army volunteer in Vietnam and a hardhat construction worker on his return. “She comes out of the 60’s—but she comes from a totally different view toward the U.S. and the world that I come from, which I can sense.”
Mr. Spencer has been strident in his criticism of Mrs. Clinton, delighting conservative partisans with his accusations that she “aids and abets” terrorists by criticizing President George W. Bush.
“We’re at war,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with debating policy, but not with that vitriol and hatred in your voice, and you’ve seen that hatred out of Hillary Clinton.”
And his press releases tend to attack her character as much as her positions.
“Senator Clinton just lacks the honesty to call for censure. While I strongly disagree with him, at least Senator Feingold has moral conviction. I’m afraid Senator Clinton’s only moral conviction is her own personal ambition,” he said in a recent release.
Mr. Wolfson responded by referring to a recent meeting between Mr. Spencer and the White House political director, Sara Taylor.
“The first thing John Spencer did after meeting Karl Rove’s team in the White House was accuse Senator Clinton of treason. Sadly, he is still at it. With comments like these, it’s easy to see why people who have worked with John Spencer say he is an angry man who is prone to over-the-top outbursts and vitriolic statements,” he said.
Mr. Spencer laughs off such descriptions. Asked about a newspaper article describing his “titanic, obscenity-laced tirades,” he cracks, “That’s usually at the media.”
His lack of restraint, though, is a two-edged sword, and he cautions not to read too much into his brief White House meeting, which was reported—he says “inflated”—by the New York Post.
“I heard that Sara Taylor was mad” about the Post story, he said. “But the hell with her—I don’t care about her being mad. What the hell do I care? I don’t care about her or Karl Rove.”