Inside Camp Hillary, Theyre Determined Not to Jinx Things

This is not a trick question, and its answer does not hinge upon whether a certain massively unfortunate municipal official opts in or out of the Senate race.

Democrat or Republican: For which Senate candidate do recent, surreal events spell real trouble?

On the face of it, the answer cannot possibly be the Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Lately, Mrs. Clinton has exuded all the serene confidence of a candidate about to be coronated-as, in fact, she was, on the occasion of her nomination by the New York State Democratic Party at the packed Pepsi Arena in Albany on the evening of Tuesday, May 16.

And while it would be inhumane of the First Lady to delight openly in the woes of her adversary, it would be inhuman of her not to do so secretly, even if only in the back room of her own brain. After all, not since her husband, Bill, drew Newt Gingrich as his Political Enemy No. 1 has a public figure seemed to find such fortune in a nemesis. And, when you think about it, this is not really new in the last two weeks, but only much more dramatically true. To go backward through the crazed chronology of the mayoral year 2000, Mr. Giuliani has, in the past several months, enjoyed a romantic, flashbulb-lit stroll with his new girlfriend while his freshly mortified wife takes the kids to visit Mom in California; been openly, tremblingly nailed by that wife for a long-denied affair with a different girlfriend, a public employee; announced his plans for legal separation from said wife without, apparently, informing her ahead of time; and been caught dating the new girlfriend in the first place. He has received a prostate cancer diagnosis. On the city-stewardship front, he has responded to the police shooting of an unarmed black man by releasing that unarmed man’s juvenile record and otherwise defaming him, to widespread revulsion; borne the brunt of the stunning, if perhaps legally indicated, acquittals of all the police officers involved in the shooting of another unarmed black man; and been slapped with a page 1 scandal over the contracts-award process conducted by his welfare unit. He has spattered his image as a nonpandering, law-and-order kind of guy by wackily bemoaning the taking of Elián González by government “storm troopers.”

Indeed, pretty much the only thing that the Mayor has not done lately seems to be … campaign. Compared to his rival, Mr. Giuliani has barely stepped foot out of New York City in order to meet the voters elsewhere in the state; his general appetite for which activity he neatly capsulized by canceling an upstate swing in favor of attending the season opener at Yankee Stadium. This should pretty much bring us back to Christmastime, the universal season of arresting the homeless.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton has done, well, nothing-in the best possible way. Of course, she has continued her energetic campaigning throughout the state, recently reaching her goal of visiting all 62 counties. But to mark the most striking contrast between the First Lady’s current, ever-steadier style and her initial, clumsier one is, in considerable part, to list a series of happy negatives: She has not donned any Yankee caps; has not countenanced the release of any terrorists or freedom fighters from federal detention at the hands of her clement spouse; nor breezily agreed to march in any controversial ethnic parades. She has not kissed or been kissed by Suha Arafat or any figure similarly despised by any crucial bloc of New York voters; has not mistakenly referred to a police shooting by later-acquitted police officers as a “murder”; has not found herself in the general vicinity of the Rev. Al Sharpton. She has neither accepted nor rejected a mortgage loan for a big new house in Westchester from a Democratic fat cat; nor neglected to tip any diner personnel, or even been accused of tolerating any lyrics by that purveyor of filth, Billy Joel.

In short, Mrs. Clinton has not screwed up at all in a very long time. And, not to kick a guy when he’s down, but the Mayor has done little but screw up-or, in the case of his cancer, suffer being screwed up by cruel circumstances-for about the same period of time.

And where does this deep, dramatic reversal of their respective fortunes leave our pair of protagonists? In a statistical dead heat.

Not to rain on Hillary’s news cycles, but think about that: In an overwhelmingly Democratic state, the Republican candidate is practically gushing blood from multiple stab wounds, all but one of them self-inflicted. The Democratic candidate has been looking better and better. And they’re tied .

Don’t get The Observer wrong here. This chapter of purple prose is a net negative for the Republicans. And Team Hillary knows this, although it is not stupid enough to express it, nor to put too much stock in it until it knows for sure who its enemy is. “It’s like a crack under the glass,” said a Hillary insider of Rudy’s travails. “It’s not that you’re going to exploit the crack itself, it’s that the structure is weakened.”

This is true even if one accepts the deeply questionable premise that all voters speak the absolute truth when they tell pollsters that nothing about a candidate’s personal life ever bears upon their vote. For one thing, it increases the potential for the race to be about something that Team Rudy does not want the race to be about. For another, it underscores what the Mayor’s campaign does not want to underscore about him, and it undercuts what his campaign does want to stress about him.

In other words, let’s suppose that no one cares where, or with whom, the Mayor sleeps. Fine. He still needs this race to be a referendum on his mayoralty, particularly as viewed by those who have not directly experienced it. If all else flows from there, the flow is pretty good. In that context, for instance, the First Lady’s failure to open up much in the way of a gender gap among suburban women makes perfect sense. The Mayor is credited with making the city cleaner and safer. Who feels better about the city being cleaner and safer? Suburban women or suburban men? And so on. Therefore, any discussion of anything else-the Mayor’s temper; his party affiliation with Jesse Helms and Trent Lott; which city residents the cops should or should not be shooting-dilutes his strongest shot. So, in different ways, do the cancer and the Judi. That is simply not good.

And let’s suppose that voters really are looking to elect a Senator, not a saint. That’s not the same as saying that they will be willing to elect a complete schmuck. It is here that the fact that Ms. Hanover seems less than 100 percent committed to her estranged spouse’s ultimate triumph seems most operatively damaging. After all, it might be harder to downplay a fellow’s general image as a heartless bastard when his wife tells the world that he rewarded her efforts to mend their marriage by cheating on her for (at least) the second time. And it may be harder to play up a fellow’s image as a straight-shooting son of a gun when, according to that same wife, he spent his 1997 re-election campaign lying about his affair with his communications director, Cristyne Lategano. Of course, given that both the Mayor and Ms. Lategano stick by their original denials, one must consider the possibility that Ms. Hanover is being dishonest or delusional on this point-but again, is that a discussion that the Mayor really wants to have in front of the women of Westchester?

So to take the view that Hillary’s cup is half full, the whole situation may prove more negative for the Mayor in ways that are not yet fully apparent. At the same time, though, to take the point of view that her cup is half empty, it’s fair to ask: If they are tied now, what happens when she next screws up; when her campaign next fumbles in some way; when the wheels of the news cycle starts rolling back over her?

Then again, say the Mayor gets out. In that case, the Republicans have all kinds of predictable problems, and we can all list them by heart. With the exception of Gov. George Pataki, they don’t have as much money as Mrs. Clinton, they have much less experience in the spotlight than she, and they have issues with their issues: Representative Rick Lazio, for instance, may not benefit from his having signed onto Mr. Gingrich’s Contract with America; Representative Peter King’s staunchly pro-life record could very well be a gender gap waiting to happen.

That is why there are those on Team Hillary who are hoping that Mr. Giuliani does get out. But kicking around Democratic circles is an unpublished part of a Zogby International poll, taken on April 28, that suggests how the First Lady would fare against any one of six other Republican opponents. Many Democrats tend to discount Mr. Zogby’s results, which often appear in the New York Post, on the grounds that they are skewed toward results favorable to Republicans. But unless he cooks all his numbers until they wilt, those numbers contain some sobering news for Mrs. Clinton.

Here is who never votes for Mrs. Clinton, no matter which one of six possible Republican names hers is put up against: 41.3 percent of Jewish voters; 52.7 percent of white voters; 55.9 percent of suburban voters.

Now, can those numbers change the minute any one of those opponents goes from a potential opponent to an actual one? Absolutely. Do they ean that she can’t win? Absolutely not. But should they steady the giddiness? Absolutely. Do they mean that when it comes to strengthening her own appeal on her own merits to some crucial voters who ought to be in her own base, she still has her work cut out for her? You bet again. For the First Lady now stands wher she has been standing, precariously, from the word “go.” The older, richer and whiter-and therefore more likely to vote-a New Yorker is, the less likely he or she still seems to be to vote for her. To be sure, this is a problem that the Clinton campaign may very well prove able to solve. But as of now, a problem it remains.

That is why for the First Lady’s smarter supporters, the sound ringing in their ears at the convention in Albany was not the coronets of a coronation, but the bang of the starters’ gun.

“She’s just laying her groundwork,” said one such person.

“She’s not at her peak. She’s far from it.”

So for whose Senate campaign do recent events spell real trouble?

This is not a trick question. But, all current appearances to the contrary, there is more than one correct answer.

Inside Camp Hillary, Theyre Determined Not to Jinx Things