Join an NPR reporter on Hillary's campaign trail

by Alice Gomstyn | 5/9/00 5:00am

Hillary Clinton is "a tough nut to crack," according to National Public Radio correspondent Andrea Bernstein, who shared stories from her latest assignment -- trailing the campaign of the first lady-turned-New York Senate hopeful -- with a crowd of students, faculty and community members at the Rockefeller Center Friday afternoon.

Bernstein's coverage of the Hillary Clinton campaign began last summer, when Mrs. Clinton first revealed that she was considering a bid for the Senate seat -- an office soon to be left vacant by retiring Democratic Senator Patrick Moynihan.

In July, New York City reporters traveled upstate to the town of Davenport, New York, just to hear Clinton confirm what political pundits had been speculating for months.

Standing in front of a small farmhouse with Moynihan by her side, Clinton essentially said, "Here I am, and I'm going to explore the possibility of running for U.S. Senate," according to Bernstein.

The announcement kicked off the beginning of Clinton's "Listening Tour," during which the first lady traversed New York in an effort to become better acquainted with its residents.

Although the tour was lampooned by various comedians, Bernstein contends that, given Clinton's relative unfamiliarity with the state, "It was probably as good a way to begin the campaign as any."

A bad move on Clinton's part, according to Bernstein, was her embrace of Sujat Arafat, wife of Palestinian Leader Yasir Arafat, last November.

Clinton hugged Arafat despite Arafat's accusation that the Israeli government was gassing Palestinian women and children -- an accusation presented in a speech Arafat gave in the presence of the first lady.

The embrace angered the republican Jewish coalition, who produced an anti-Hillary commercial portraying the incident. Aides to the first lady claim that at the time, Clinton did not understand the translation of Arafat's speech.

Bernstein also criticized Clinton's attempt to associate herself with the accomplishments of her husband's administration while trying simultaneously to establish herself as an entity separate from the President.

The first lady's strategy for distancing herself from her husband in the eyes of the public includes a de-emphasis of her famous last name.

The campaign itself, formalized by the first lady's official announcement last February, is called Hillary 2000. Bernstein also noted that in press releases that her campaign staffers no longer refer to her as "Mrs. Clinton."

"All her press people always call her Hillary," Bernstein said.

Aside from impressing her new identity upon New York residents, Clinton also faces several other obstacles on the path to securing the senatorship, including her lack of experience with the state as well as her relative unpopularity with New York's women voters, Bernstein said.

"Women in New York who come from the same socioeconomic background feel that she set a bad example [in publicly tolerating her husband's infidelity]," Bernstein said.

"In all my years reporting on politics ... I've never met anyone so guarded and so distant as she is," Bernstein said, adding that Clinton's cautiousness may hurt her because it is not a typical "New York" quality.

Her chief rival, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, has problems of his own.

Recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, the mayor told the press earlier last week that he would prioritize his health over his senatorial campaign. While this has led some to speculate that the mayor may drop out of the race, Bernstein predicts otherwise.

"I suspect that in the end the mayor will stay in the race," she said. "He's a really tough guy."

Giuliani's illness may even help his candidacy in the sense that it could "soften his gruff personality," Bernstein said.

Over the past few months, the mayor has come under attack for being insensitive in his handling of cases of police brutality.

Bernstein was reluctant to endorse either candidate.

"I agree with 59 percent of New Yorkers who wish someone else was in the race," she said.

Bernstein's lecture was jointly sponsored by the Rockefeller Public Issues Forum, Women in Politics and Rocky on the Radio.

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