Hillary takes `retail politics' to the people

IT WAS a First Lady-lite who travelled through a swathe of central New York state last week. This was her first outing as a political candidate- in-waiting since she confirmed last Tuesday that she was forming an "exploratory committee" to look into running for a US Senate seat in the Empire State next year.

With none of the usual power-trappings and hoopla of the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton journeyed through successive upstate towns, some with such Shakespearean names as Verona, Rome and Syracuse, to make first contact with its voters. It was billed the "listening tour" and its purpose was without mystery: the First Lady does not know the state too well, has never lived in it, and wants to learn.

And even she is not denying that she has a lot to learn. The listening tour, or learning tour, is set to last all 70 weeks long until election day itself in November next year, assuming she declares formally and irreversibly this autumn, as all now expect. She resumes tomorrow in New York City and from there, next week, she travels through nearby Westchester (find that dream house, Hill) and after that it's Long Island.

"I want to learn more," she said to a worker explaining labour-management relations at the New Venture Gear company on the outskirts of Syracuse late on Friday. "That's why I love this listening tour," she gushed to a farmer hours earlier in Rome, after he gave an exposition on local animal waste regulations that are hurting his finances. Listen, learn, smile. Nod all the time.

Thus Mrs Clinton went retail last week. Retail politics, as this meet- and-greet brand of campaigning is suddenly being dubbed, will be the style of her New York candidacy, not wholesale politics. This woman is a star - however much her husband may have tarnished it, the White House still brings the reverential out in Americans - and filling an occasional airport hangar or supermarket car park would hardly be a problem. But Hillary means to run her race differently, and last week she made that plain.

We knew it even on the road from Binghamton airport to the farm of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on Wednesday morning, where the official coming- out of her candidacy was staged. We were half way when a pee-stop was declared. It was not Hillary who was bursting, but she climbed out of her humble blue mini-van all the same. There were people to see, like 5-year-old Heather Filidea. "You've got an h-name," Hillary shared with the little girl after the introductions. "I've got an h-name too."

Even the van told us something. Her entire fleet numbered only five vehicles, and the single black Chevy Suburban of the Secret Service was all that suggested anything vaguely VIP. And the agents were barely in evidence. This reporter attended every event on her schedule without being asked to so much as show his credentials, let alone submit himself to a frisk, or his computer bag to the dog-sniff search normally conducted when members of the First Family are around. No Air Force One. No helicopters clattering above.

This may be giving the Secret Service kittens, but Mrs Clinton wants New Yorkers to know: she may not be one of them, not yet anyway, but she is prepared to be among them. She was among them in the highway service stop, in the barbecue restaurant later on Wednesday and in the Rome chop house on Friday.

Retail politics sounds new, but it isn't. Mrs Clinton has had frequent occasion to watch the master of retail at work - Bill Clinton himself - who could never resist a plunge into the crowds, however late that made him for the next event. (And yes, Clinton-time reigns with the First Lady too. If the schedule says 9am, she will turn up at 10.) The truth is, Mrs Clinton is not quite there yet. Most of the events so far have been attended by small groups of folks, but selectively invited folks.

And what will it do for her, all this learning, nodding and posing for disposable camera shots with workers at New Venture Gear? Can Hillary shake the allegation that she is a carpetbagger in New York? "Personally, I don't think she has any business being in New York," growled Craig McCaa, a 22-year-old software engineer over lunch in a Rome diner. (He did not attend her event.) "It is a political move by her because it is the most powerful place in America and she wants to use it. She should run in Arkansas."

Many around here are suspicious of Hillary. Polls show her trailing her likely Republican opponent, the mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, by about 14 points in upstate New York. In the suburbs of the Big Apple, it is even worse for her. But in the city itself, she would beat Mr Giuliani today by a crushing two to one. Put those pieces of geography together, and you find Clinton and Giuliani in a dead heat.

But Hillary has lots of time. And upstate New Yorkers are only marginally less suspicious of Mr Giuliani - Manhattan, with its torrents of Wall Street money, might as well be as far from jobless, rusting Rome as Little Rock. As 70-year-old Larry Sterling, also in the diner, put it: "I'd like to take my chainsaw and cut New York City loose, so it could float off into the Atlantic, taking Mr Giuliani with it."

But Rudolph Giuliani is going nowhere: a fight it will be. And what if the candidates meet to debate, and some spark chooses Verona as the place to do it? Expect a tragedy, but not Romeo and Juliet.

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