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Off the Record

If a campaign unfolds in the hinterlands, does it still make noise? Sure -- though sometimes you'd be hard-pressed to tell, given the stinginess of the coverage.

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Following Hillary Clinton around upstate for five days proved the old newspaper adage -- or maybe it's a new adage I'm only just coining -- that everything that's news isn't interesting, and everything that's interesting isn't news.

Of course, in Mrs. Clinton's case, she's spent the better part of a year now mostly trying not to be interesting. But her foil, the mayor, dropped out of the picture (though how is it that, with Andrew Kirtzman's and especially Wayne Barrett's startling revelations, he manages to look both worse and yet somehow still more fascinating?). And with Rick Lazio seeming like less, maybe a lot less, than first met the eye, it can be argued that we've hit that long, forbidding patch of dry earth that always looms before the oasis of October surprises and attack ads. Or it can be argued, and perhaps more compellingly, that this has all been going on too long already, and couldn't we just vote tomorrow and have it done with?

But there were things to be learned, as well as relearned, on this swing. Most of all, the perhaps surprising fact that in rock-ribbed upstate, which we've known for a year is home to no shortage of Hillary-haters, there are quite a few Hillary-lovers too. Consider, first, the size of the crowds. At a skating rink in Endicott, outside Binghamton, 1,200 people. At Ithaca Commons, the city's pedestrian mall, at least 1,000. At a rally in a park in Elmira -- which, as we all know, Hillary once drove through as a child -- 500. At a rally at a minor-league ballpark in Jamestown, another 500 or so. A similar number at a Democratic picnic in Rochester. Hundreds as she walked the streets of Buffalo during a food festival. And, at a picnic outside Utica, 1,500. In the rain, no less. This was at Democratic picnics that are used to hosting 40 revelers, if that. In Utica I asked a lawyer from Rome how many people the Democratic picnic usually draws. "Well," he said, "we haven't really had a public event like this in a few years."

All right, no surprise, maybe, that people want to meet the First Lady. But at this point, six months out of the White House and four months away from the election, she's arguably more candidate than First Lady. Maybe they really do show up only because she's famous, and what it'll amount to come November, who knows? But by the second day, I got in the habit of standing behind her as she worked the crowds -- which she does for three or four hours a day, until the last picture has been taken -- so I could look in the eyes of these people who waited two hours for her to arrive (she's always late), an hour for all the speeches, and another hour to shake her hand or get their pictures snapped. They looked like voters to me.

One of the standard devices in the downstate papers, in the interest of balance, has been to quote one supporter and one detractor at the bottom of the story, to signal to the reader that, yes, controversy follows this woman wherever she goes. In fact, however, the number of protesters is always quite small. Five, ten. Somewhat more in Buffalo, where she took a riskier stroll down a street filled not with self-selecting Democrats but with regular people. Still, it was amusing to see that her chief heckler, who followed her down the block shouting, "Go back to Arkansas!," would pause from time to time during his imprecations to snap her picture.

To be relearned, though, was the eternally frustrating lesson that forces itself upon anyone hoping and praying that she can be just a little more open. She's better with the press than she was a year ago; she knows us, jokes with us, presented one of our number with a little tchotchke. But it's still the case that only a fraction of what tumbles out of her mouth sounds like it's really coming from her heart. Ellen Wulfhorst of Reuters got an interview and asked her what kind of candidate she thought she'd been. Answer: "Making progress, needs improvement." I was struck as I read this, because she used almost exactly the same words to me, in response to the same question -- four months ago! Are we really to believe that her thoughts on this subject haven't evolved in four months? Surely they have, but she just can't bring herself to describe her genuine feelings, even in reply to an innocuous question like that.

Later, on the press bus, I asked her whether she'd acknowledge any connection between upstate job loss, which she'd been talking about for five days, and nafta, which she backed and which hasn't come up too often as she's racked up the support of union after union. She allowed that there might be "a limited connection there, but nafta is not the overall reason" for upstate problems. She pointed instead, as she had on the stump, to utility rates and so on. John Riley of Newsday asked her about the Rockefeller drug laws. She said she was "intrigued" by some proposals by the state's chief judge, Judith Kaye, to send more first-time offenders into treatment, but she concluded that, at the federal level at least (the Rockefeller laws cover the state), "I don't support at this point getting away from mandatory tough sentencing." These were not what you would call courageous positions, especially in the case of the drug laws, which almost everyone in the state now regards as Draconian.

So here's this same old Hillary, who's been covered so much that reporters can scarcely bring themselves to think about the next four months. But there is also this other Hillary who genuinely does deliver expressions of absolute rapture to people's faces. The second Hillary doesn't make the papers nearly as much as the first, which is no one's fault in particular -- partly hers, for being so guarded in her answers to press questions, and partly the papers', which, as campaigns became more stage-managed through the eighties and nineties, have grown so wary of being open to charges of falling for a campaign's spin that they're far less likely than they once were to write about things like the admiring throngs.

Things weren't always this way; coverage of Bobby Kennedy's 1964 Senate race, for example, focused much more on the pageant. But candidates today have to do more to earn that sort of press, like being provocative and incendiary. Provocative and incendiary are two things Mrs. Clinton has not been and likely has absolutely no intention of becoming in the next four months. Those cheering crowds are seeing -- and hearing -- a candidate most voters will probably never read about over breakfast.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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