Now it's almost midsummer, and we are being asked to take the prospect entirely seriously. Last week, The Washington Post reported that Mrs Clinton had all but made up her mind, if not to run, then at least to take the next step - establishing an "exploratory committee", which would entitle her to federal money to finance further forays into New York. Conversations between this reporter and one White House insider confirm this intelligence. "Everyone is talking like it's a done deal," he conceded. "They are even casting around very discreetly for people to work on her campaign."
And lo, there was the First Lady back in Manhattan yesterday, attending a book party for Matilda Cuomo, the wife of the former Governor, Mario Cuomo, and a gala dinner, arranged, as it happened, to raise money for Democrats eyeing the US Senate.
Yesterday's trip was the fifth by the First Lady to the state in as many weeks. The betting is that the exploratory committee will be formed in early June, after Hillary and Bill return from a brief holiday in Florida. "It's clear to me that she wants to do this," said the New York Democratic chairwoman Judith Hope. "She's been trying it on for size, and it's been a real good fit."
There are other clues, too. Shortly Mrs Clinton is to leave for Israel, ostensibly to meet its new leader, Prime Minister Barak, but more likely she will be trying to repair relations with New York's Jewish constituency, frayed by comments she has made favouring a Palestinian state. We know, too, that Bill and Hillary are agonising over where to spend their August break this year. The search, we are told, has been narrowed to just one state. You can guess which one. Shelter Island, at the tip of Long Island, looks strong.
So now we are compelled to ponder the next round of questions. What kind of campaign should New York expect and, above all, could Mrs Clinton win? To answer the first, the race should be a humdinger, a millennium-closer of a battle that offers a much more tantalising prospect than the expected presidential contest between George Bush Jr and Al (the snore) Gore. As for the second, the answer is an emphatic yes. Certainly, she could win.
And consider this: if Hillary gets to the Senate and shines there and if the White House is lost to the Republicans in 2004, will she not be well placed to run for her husband's old job in 2008? President Hillary Rodham Clinton? It is possible.
Her most likely Republican rival for the seat - being vacated by the Democratic veteran Daniel Patrick Moynihan - is the less-than-cuddly Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. If not him, it could perhaps be the current state Governor, George Pataki, or otherwise a Republican US representative from Long Island named Rick Lazio. Lazio declared on Sunday that he was "inching closer" to throwing his hat into the ring. Among the most important issues likely to surface in the race are gun control and education. Mrs Clinton would be a strong voice on both counts. On guns, Giuliani will be torn between New York City liberals and upstate country hunting enthusiasts; and on education Giuliani, by any standards, has a miserable record.
Early polls suggested a huge lead for Mrs Clinton in a face-off with Giuliani. But the picture has since become less clear. A new poll conducted by Zogby International and published by the New York Post this Sunday showed 49 per cent of the state's voters favouring Giuliani over 44 per cent for the First Lady. That is a statistical dead heat. She was also seen trailing Pataki by 49 per cent to 45 per cent.
Inevitably, Mrs Clinton will stand accused of playing the "carpetbagger", descending on a state where she sees political opportunity but which could hardly be described as her natural home. (By the normal conventions, she should be running in Illinois, where she was raised, or in Arkansas, where she practised law for more than two decades.) Aides close to Giuliani have already been making jabs in this regard. They have also been asking pointed questions about the legality of using White House funds for the New York visits she has made to date. History offers some reassurance; in 1966, Robert Kennedy migrated from Massachusetts and rented a tiny apartment for the sole purpose of running in New York for the US Senate. His enemies shrieked carpetbagger, but he still won.
And Hillary could face headwinds for other reasons. Run in New York, and every rotten egg that has fouled the Clinton White House will come raining down on her. The media will see to that - the New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, will be stocking its arsenals as you read this. As will Giuliani. She will be pelted with everything - her inexplicably lucrative dealings on the commodity exchanges in the early Eighties; the suicide of her friend, the White House counsel Vincent Foster; her role in protecting her husband in the assorted storms of Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate and, of course, the Monica debacle. Something else may give the voters pause: do they want to be responsible for saddling the nation with six more years of a Clinton?
But she would also come to the race with multiple advantages. Unarguably, she is a celebrity who scores on name-recognition beyond the dreams of most mortals in politics. And while her candidacy will doubtless galvanise the Republican Party and the large number of Clinton-haters across the land, she will need to do little more than turn up, in order to open the tap of million-dollar campaign contributions from star-struck Democrats. The Monica factor is also intriguing. While her willingness to stand by the Philanderer-in-Chief has appalled a few, the compassion for the wronged wife is tangible among women. She can also count on the black vote, because of her husband's standing among African Americans.
Mrs Clinton will know that the Republican Party in New York is badly fractured. When Giuliani goes to bed at night and chafes over his enemies, it is Governor Pataki he thinks of first, and his close ally, the former Republican senator from New York, Alfonse D'Amato. Both gentlemen make little secret of their desire to see Giuliani snookered in his lunge for higher office. (Pataki has never forgiven Giuliani for crossing party lines and endorsing his rival, Mario Cuomo, in his first run for governor in 1994.) Whether they would be able to swallow their bitterness to rally behind a Giuliani senate run, is doubtful indeed.
Giuliani, meanwhile, has problems all of his own. His momentum has come almost exclusively from his universally acknowledged success in taming Gotham. With his twin commitments to quality of life issues and the reduction of crime - most notably with the Draconian policy of zero tolerance - he has made New York almost safe. No longer are residents afraid to stray outside in the streets after dark, or to ride the subway.
But the Giuliani lustre has begun to dim, and a backlash is stirring. The sometimes bullheaded strictness of his stewardship has been cast in a less flattering light by two incidents of alleged police brutality. In February, four white officers gunned down an unarmed immigrant from West Africa in the hallway of his apartment building, sparking a storm of protests and demonstrations. In a separate case, five officers of the NYPD are currently on trial for the alleged torture of a Haitian man. One is accused of ramming a wooden stick up his rectum and then into his mouth.
Finally, there is this. Who between Clinton and Giuliani would be the better senator? Here, I must declare no contest. It is true that Mrs Clinton made a muck of the universal health care plan all those year's back, but she knows how to build bridges. Any student of Giuliani will tell you this: he has no time for the courtesies of politics. Fights - no matter how personal they may be - are his oxygen. This may make him one mean opponent in the race next year, but his are hardly the qualities of a senator, who must sit four hours in committees, deal politely with foes, and make compromises when the passing of laws requires them.Reuse content