Down on the farm, Hillary is listening to America

THE POLITICAL scene was one that may be remembered in America for having the surreal air of a fantasy Hollywood script. Down an ordinary dirt road, through ordinary hay fields in the foothills of the Catskill mountains, strolled the first lady of the United States with something not at all ordinary to announce about her future life. And waiting for her, far from their familiar desks and studios, were the world's press.

There was no suspense in the moment but almighty anticipation even so. Finally, with the slow-walking Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan at her side, she reached the single microphone before two solid oak trees. Mrs Clinton was embarking on a venture that would have seemed outlandish only a few months ago: shedding her role as ceremonial first spouse and running herself for office.

Thus, in deepest cowpat country and under a bleaching summer sun, Mrs Clinton indulged in her coming-out as a prospective candidate for the US Senate seat that Mr Moynihan will vacate, after four terms in Washington, at the end of next year. She has not formally declared yet - that may not come until the autumn - but few are now left in any doubt that she is determined to run the race and, if she can, to win.

And so, through myriad camera lenses and 20 or so satellite dishes - sprouting from trucks parked where, two days earlier, the tall grass had been mown - she made it official.

On Tuesday, she had filed notice in Washington that she was forming the exploratory committee that allows her to raise money for a putative campaign. This was her first official outing as a candidate-in-waiting. Her opponent, as yet also undeclared, is likely to be the hard-punching Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani.

The symbolism was lent by Senator Moynihan, whose 900-acre farm, Derrymore, we had all motored four hours out of New York to reach. A critic of the Clintons in the past, he offered his unimpeachable support in the present. "I hope she will go all the way, I mean to go all the way with her and I think she's going to win," he intoned in his schoolmasterly way. "And I think it will be wonderful for New York."

But this was Mrs Clinton's moment to explain herself, to answer, first of all, the most obvious question that she will be forced to face a thousand times over. What gives her the right to use her celebrity as first lady to swoop down on New York, a state she has never lived in, and snare a Senate seat that might otherwise have gone to a native politician?

This very awkward carpetbagger question was asked, though not orally, by the protester, awaiting her at the airport when she landed at nearby Binghampton yesterday, who was holding aloft a piece of carpet cut out in the shape of Arkansas. And again by the woman with a large sign at the bottom of the road to the Moynihan farm declaring: "Queen Hillary. Go Home!"

"I think that is a very fair question," she ventured. "I fully understand people raising it." Then she tried this: "I think what I'm for is as important, or more important, than where I'm from." And what is she for? "All I can say is that I care deeply about the issues that are important in this state." Yes, and they are? And she listed them: education and healthcare and, "New York getting its fair share from Washington".

She admitted that even she was perplexed when talk of her running first surfaced last December. "But the more I listened, the more excited I became as I saw the possibilities of what we could do for the people of New York." Excitement was her theme. "I'm very excited about this." "I'm very excited at the prospect of considering this race." "I'm very excited." "I'm excited about it and I'm looking forward to it."

And she was excited about listening. Indeed, yesterday marked the beginning of what has been billed as a four-day "listening tour" of cities in central New York, including Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is, and Albany and Oneonta. The purpose is to portray a first lady stripped of the usual White House hoopla, to connect with "regular" folk and to talk over their problems. (All under the keen observation of the 200-odd journalists in her wake.)

The event was more than the rushed walk-by the reporters had expected. One Japanese news crew arrived, all the way from Manhattan, aboard a stretch limousine that almost became beached as it roared from the road on to the field. There was none of the security sweeping the Secret Service normally does for a member of the first family and Mrs Clinton answered questions for about 15 minutes.

She was asked the difficult ones, too, such as whether she expected women to vote for her out of sympathy over Monica Lewinsky. She did not really answer that. "I'm looking forward to hearing a lot of New Yorkers and I think they'll have a lot to tell me and what they think about me."

By the roadsides, yesterday, they already were. The competing gaggles of pro and anti-Clintonites at the entrance to the farm offered a foretaste of how incendiary a contest this is likely to be. One woman voter on whom Mrs Clinton cannot count is June Swisher, manager of a nearby auto-salvage shop. "Normally you choose the best person, but just the background of both the Clintons - well, I just don't like them," she admitted.

But for now, New York, all of America and Mrs Clinton herself, must savour the sheer novelty of her debut as candidate as well as first lady. "What's new to me is being on this side of the microphone," she confessed, smiling brightly. "Talking for myself and talking about what I believe in." Not, of course, that she has been all that silent until now.

Too hot to think

about Hillary,

Review, page 4