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The Perils of Jeanine

Jeanine Pirro knew Hillary Clinton would be a tough opponent. Little did Pirro know her Republican friends would be tougher.

Jeanine Pirro in her White Plains office.  

This time, Jeanine Pirro has come prepared. She’s brought her chief of staff, her press secretary, and her lead policy adviser. She has her own tape recorder. The former three-term Westchester district attorney even has a large Styrofoam cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts whose size seems to indicate she is ready to hunker down for as long as necessary.

Pirro is in a small conference room at her campaign headquarters on the fourth floor of Gateway Plaza, a black glass office building across from the Metro-North station in White Plains. She is wearing a beautifully tailored graphite suit set off by a soft sweater-top in one of the vivid, hothouse-flower colors—today it’s a sea-foam green—that have become a trademark.

Pirro smiles often and broadly, she laughs loudly, and she talks about what she calls her issues (protecting children, women, and the elderly). What she does not want to discuss is the elephant in the room: the Republican machine that had picked her as its standard-bearer against Senator Hillary Clinton, thrust her onto the front lines unprepared, and then abandoned her when it was clear she was making no headway.

“You wanna talk about my dogs?” Pirro asks at one point, only half-joking, desperately trying to change the direction of the conversation. “Look, when I realized that the political and financial support were not there to beat Hillary, I made the decision to run for attorney general. I’m a realist.”

Now that she’s back on familiar ground, running for attorney general, she has mostly regained her equilibrium. Gone is that caught-in-the-headlights look that was permanently stamped on her face during the Senate run. Her most humiliating moment came right at the beginning, during her announcement: the now-famous 32 seconds of silence when she tried to find a misplaced page in her speech. It was the kind of horrifying who-am-I-and-why-am-I-here mishap that anyone who speaks in public has nightmares about. Suddenly, Pirro became a punch line.

But the moment only underscored a larger truth about her Senate run. Throughout her candidacy, she seemed oddly flat, unenthusiastic, like she really didn’t want to be there. Her lack of fire was obvious to anyone familiar with her usual public posture. “Her performance,” says someone close to her, “clearly reflected the fact that her heart wasn’t in it.”

How did this ostentatious defender of victims become a victim herself, a hostage in her own campaign?

It starts, as do many Republican horror stories, with Hillary Clinton.

It is a given that New York is 51st on the list of 50 states the Republican National Committee cares about. The committee does, however, care a great deal about Hillary’s career path, and doing something, anything, to diminish her potential as a presidential candidate in 2008 is a very high priority. No one in the Republican Party really thought there was much chance of beating her this year in New York, but the party wanted to at least make a race of it. By early last year, Ed Cox had already spent months traveling around the state, using his own money, to lay the groundwork for a run against Hillary. But Cox didn’t exactly make anyone’s pulse race. He was a perfectly decent guy—a successful corporate lawyer at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler—and he has impeccable Republican credentials. He is, after all, married to Richard Nixon’s daughter.

But he was not the guy the party wanted to carry the flag against Hillary. Too spindly, too meek, too proper. Not the kind of candidate who’d be willing to roll up his sleeves and really get it on with her.

Pirro-for-Senate was one of those ideas—like nominating Bernie Kerik for Homeland Security secretary—that seemed like sheer genius, to the geniuses who came up with it. Although Pirro didn’t have Hillary’s wattage (who does?), she was glamorous, telegenic (she was a Fox News analyst, a cable veteran, and had been offered two network contracts), and wildly ambitious. Pirro was a tough prosecutor accustomed to dealing with murderers, rapists, and pedophiles; surely she’d have no trouble engaging Hillary in a little close-quarters combat. And there was the estrogen factor. Who didn’t think the best way to fight Hillary was with a woman?

It was the perfect race for Pirro. She wouldn’t win, of course, but that didn’t really matter. She’d elevate her profile and become a national figure (like Rick Lazio?), and she’d easily raise $30 million to $40 million (Hillary is the Rosetta stone of Republican fund-raising, isn’t she?). Taking on Hillary, everyone agreed, would even eliminate Pirro’s husband problem: Pirro would have the protection of mutually assured deterrence. Flawed husbands would be a war neither side would want to start. And if she did a good job, the Republicans would owe her big-time. Maybe Pirro would get a federal judgeship or a cabinet post.