Seconds out: the First Lady is now in the ring

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HILLARY RODHAM Clinton yesterday took her first formal step from First Lady to political candidate when she filed papers with the Federal Election Commission announcing the creation of a so-called exploratory committee to investigate running for a seat in the United States Senate next year to represent New York.

Thus, the opening bell was rung on what promises to be the most compelling Senate race seen in the United States in decades, and which may even eclipse the contest next year between candidates for the presidency. Mrs Clinton's most likely Republican opponent is the famously abrasive mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani.

Mrs Clinton, who would be the first wife of a president to seek elective office, begins today what aides term a summer-long "listening tour" of the state. Her first event, to be attended by swarms of reporters, will be at the upstate farm of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom she is hoping to replace.

The farm visit begins a four-day swing through central and eastern New York, areas of the state that register very strong support for Mr Giuliani. A new poll this week, conducted by Quinnipiac College, shows Mrs Clinton in a statistical dead heat with the mayor statewide, leading him by 46 to 44 per cent.

There is very little doubt now that the First Lady will be running in the race. A campaign headquarters has been selected, and furniture moved in to her offices on 7th Avenue in Manhattan. She has, meanwhile, continued her search for a home for herself and her husband in nearby Westchester county.

The tour has been billed as an effort by Mrs Clinton to meet as many "ordinary" New York citizens as she can. She is expected to say little over the coming weeks as she seeks to shed the aura of wife-of-the-president and create the image of a candidate concerned with local issues and individuals.

By spending as much time as she can in New York over coming weeks, the First Lady is also trying to immunise herself against charges that she is a "carpetbagger". Mr Giuliani has already accused her of seeking to use her fame to snare an elective office in a state she barely knows and has never lived in.

"This morning we filed a statement of organisation with the Federal Election Commission to establish the Hillary Rodham Clinton for US Senate Exploratory Committee," a spokesman for her nascent campaign said yesterday. Mrs Clinton herself did not attend the five-minute event at the commission's offices in Washington.

The filing, required by law, allows her to raise and spend money in preparation for the race for the Democratic nomination. She is unlikely to face any other Democratic opponents, however. Mr Giuliani formed his own committee some weeks ago and has raised about $3m (pounds 1.8m) for his own campaign.

That Mr Giuliani will end up as her final opponent in the race next year is still far from certain, however. He has yet to commit himself formally to the contest and he may face challenges from other Republicans who are anxious to fight Mrs Clinton. A possible alternative for the Republicans could be a young and popular US Representative Rick Lazio, who has the backing of Al D'Amato, a former New York senator, and George Pataki, the state Governor. Mr D'Amato and Mr Pataki share a dislike for Mr Giuliani.

It will not be easy for Mrs Clinton, with her limousines and secret service entourage, to create the atmosphere of intimacy that her listening tour is meant to engender. Nor is it likely that her aides will succeed in toning down the media interest in her putative candidacy that helps reinforce the atmosphere of celebrity.

"She's going to have to somehow or other break through that secret service cocoon and show that she's not just the great lady," Maurice Carroll, of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute, said.

A former Democrat state chairman, John Marino, yesterday applauded the plans for her listening tour, which is meant to take her into the kitchens and back gardens of New York voters. "She has to do it herself," he said. "It's time now to have the friends and advisers shut up."

Just as difficult, it seems, will be finding the right house in Westchester, a county just to the north of New York City that contains some of the most expensive property in the land. Aides recently pointed her to a house with extensive grounds and a swimming pool available for rent at $20,000 a month. That, she reportedly replied, was too expensive. She would prefer something for around $10,000.

The likely race is being widely compared with the run made by a young Robert F Kennedy for a New York Senate seat in 1964. He eventually won in a race against Republican Kenneth Keating, in spite of repeated carpetbagger allegations that were thrown at him, too. Other political historians say a Clinton-Giuliani race would be the most intriguing Senate contest since Abraham Lincoln lost to Stephen Douglas in Illinois (Mrs Clinton's native state) back in 1858.

Clinton aides are privately worried that the swirl of ethical questions that has dogged the First Couple during Bill Clinton's two tenures at the White House will now emerge to haunt Mrs Clinton.

Her role has been scrutinised ad nauseam in several of the scandals that have gripped Washington since 1992, including her part in the President's Whitewater land deal while he was governor of Arkansas.

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