Let's look at two exchanges from last week that tell us where the Senate race stands and explain why the conventional wisdom is starting to wonder whether this race will quite live up to its billing.
Talking to reporters at City Hall last Tuesday, Rudy Giuliani turned on the state's Republican Party leaders once more and attacked their challenge to John McCain's presidential petitions. "The primaries should be open, whether you like the people who are going to be in it or not," the mayor said, before saying several other things that left it, as usual, crystal clear as to where he stood on the question.
The day before, as you know, Hillary Clinton paid that much-anticipated call on the Reverend Al. Sharpton himself is trying to behave like a choirboy, but one of his board members made that awful crack about getting canned by "two Jews." Hillary inserted a general denunciation of anti-Semitism into her prepared text and criticized the remark later, out on the sidewalk.
First, consider what the mayor waded into apropos of his McCain comment. Bill Powers, the state's GOP chairman, is just about the only Pataki ally who's been helpful to Rudy over the past few months. It was basically he who brokered last summer's Pataki-Giuliani entente. Powers is also the man who's leading the charge to keep McCain off the New York ballot. To get an idea of the seriousness with which the ex-Marine Powers regards this mission, consider that he and McCain met up by accident in New Hampshire a while back and started slinging "I'm gonna fuck you!"s at each other.
This, as we know, is Rudy's idea of gratitude. He's right on the merits, of course, and his willingness to say these things has always been the one consistent thing to admire about him. Yet we might ask, what did Powers think? Giuliani sources say he didn't like it but is willing to overlook it. But it does raise again the question of Rudy's relationship with his party.
" 'If you had a candidate who was a registered Republican, who had $4- or $5 million of his own to spend and announced for the Conservative and Republican lines, would Rudy even run?' Mike Long asks."
Last week, I checked in with Mike Long, the head of the state Conservative Party, famously at loggerheads with the mayor. Long has been talking to possible candidates about accepting his party's nomination, and the expected 300,000 or more votes that go with it, for several weeks. But now, he said, he's talking with at least one person who's considering running both as a Conservative and as a Republican -- a person, in other words, who'd be willing to take on Rudy in a Republican primary. "If you had a candidate who had serious potential, who was a registered Republican, who had $4- or $5 million of his own money to spend and announced for the Conservative and Republican lines," Long asks, "would Rudy even run?" Long would not reveal who this person is, but it's clearly an actual human and not some hypothetical laboratory candidate.
His question is not an idle one. It's still likely that Rudy will run, of course, and last Wednesday, his campaign staff gave him 12 million very good reasons to do so. But he will run as he does everything: on his terms only. There's a reason he hasn't announced formally, or announced he'll announce, as Mrs. Clinton has, and it's not just that he'll lose his weekly radio show. Giuliani won't commit to this race -- and it's an open secret that he'd rather be governor, anyway -- until Powers, Pataki, and Long all dance to his tune. Ponder that: Be a good boy, Governor, or I'll use my $12 million to run against you! It's not very nice, but national GOP pressure to stop Hillary is such that it'll probably work, and Giuliani will be the more formidable candidate for it.
As for Hillary, the Sharpton episode shows a problem not with her beliefs -- no one who doesn't loathe her already can imagine she countenances such vulgar offal -- but with her political style. Frustratingly, breathtakingly cautious. I wish right now I were Henny Youngman, because at this point I could insert fifteen jokes that start "I don't wanna say she's cautious, but . . ." and the point would easily find its target. But I'm not, so I'll say it something like the following.
Barrelfuls of blather have been dumped over the past few months about Mrs. Clinton's ability to deal with New York. New Yorkers are this, New York is that; she's not this, she's not that. Most of it is shallow regional chauvinism, and readers should beware almost any sentence that starts "New Yorkers want . . ." Except this one: New Yorkers want a candidate with guts. Pluck. Courage. People who charge across the street corner against a green light as if the last helicopter out of Saigon were waiting on the far sidewalk and then glower at approaching drivers who have the light in their favor as if they were in the wrong (ever since I bought a car, I've developed a mountainous contempt for New York pedestrians) are people who have little use for timidity.
Timid, though, is the unshakable watchword of her campaign so far. At the Sharpton event, her response was adequate, but no more than that. Suppose that instead she'd got up there and told the good Reverend Norris (purveyor of the offending lines) where to put it. Politely but firmly, as they say. Yes, yes, the risks. But risks she needs. Then, Wednesday, she was up in Buffalo, where some nitwit radio guy who wants his name in the papers asked her if she'd ever cheated on Bill. Her response was firm, though entirely bloodless -- plus, it was a mistake to dignify the question by answering it. But if she'd refused to answer it and called the guy, in so many words, a nitwit who wants his name in the papers, she would have shown people an unexpected side.
I notice that when I ask insiders these days to play out a Hillary-wins scenario, her victory increasingly depends not only on women's coming around and so on but on the mayor's making some mistake, or Bill's having Ehud and Yassir and Hafez shaking hands in the Rose Garden on October 23. Spahn and Sain and pray for rain didn't win the Braves many pennants.
She's in a tough position. Her team seems to be lined up right now in what we might call the Miranda formation -- in the belief that anything she says that's remotely out of the ordinary can and will be used against her, in the Post and on the cable shows and so forth. That's probably the case, but the fact has left her campaign compensating much too far in the direction of safe. As Rudy knows, you can't score many points if you're always playing defense.