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Harold Ickes -- the "nuclear weapon" of political campaigning and unlikely Bubba loyalist -- is quietly laying the groundwork for Mrs. Clinton's Senate bid.

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So, this week, she -- and I don't mean Cher -- gets back from vacation.

Is it time? Not just yet, but it's getting close.

It's often remarked that the press is salivating over the thought of a Hillary Clinton-Rudy Giuliani Senate race. Well, sure we are. But it's less frequently noted that the political class is gaga, too. Every Democrat in town who's ever pasted up a campaign poster or gathered a petition signature is panting to climb aboard before this ship sets sail. "The people who are just dying to get a piece of this!" says one insider. "These political consultants lining up, wagging their tongues -- I mean, they make Gene Simmons look like an amateur. I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this."

The competition to get on the Hillary train is about to heat up even more, because Harold Ickes, the man behind the curtain of this operation, is reportedly talking to people about hiring a staff. They all want in -- Andrew Cuomo's pushing this one, Charlie Rangel that one, and so on. Candidates are being talked to, says one person close to the action, for campaign manager, press secretary, fund-raising coordinator, pollster, media consultant. The word is that this week, Mrs. Clinton will herself begin interviewing people for some of these jobs. A source kept me on the phone for an hour last week while I threw names at him and he answered with "Funny you should mention him" (he'd confirm names when I guessed them correctly, but my batting average was shamefully low).

That's the kind of week it was. Usually, when a campaign is getting started, you call someone up -- there are three or four people in town who always seem to know these things -- and ask them who's going to be working there, and they tell you. But with this campaign, every conversation is freighted with the kind of intrigue and double meaning that make you feel like you're talking inside a Le Carré novel. As I called people and asked them if they'd been approached, I could practically see their faces turning red over the phone as they stalled for time to think of the right way to answer the question, which meant either that they had been approached but they couldn't say so or that they hadn't been approached but they obviously couldn't admit that, so they had to think of an artful way to make me believe that maybe they had been called without exactly lying about it. One media consultant has taken to answering his phone, "Hello, we're off the record, right?"

Why? It's a simple truism of all campaigns, especially so of one as intensely watched as this: The last thing anyone seeking a political job wants to see is his or her name in print, because once the name's in print, the person's enemies can start sharpening the knives. That said, let's just go ahead and mention a few.

The word is that Ickes and Mrs. Clinton want the campaign to draw heavily from talent around the city and state, to be "very New York, because they don't need that as an issue," in the words of one watcher. Well, if it's successful Democratic statewide campaigns they're looking to as models, they don't have to look very far, because in recent years there's only been one.

Here's who worked on Chuck Schumer's victorious Senate campaign. Josh Isay was the campaign manager and is now the senator's chief of staff. Hank Morris did the TV ads. Mike Lynch was the field director. Cathie Levine and Howard Wolfson did the press. Isay and Morris, especially, were credited as the brains behind Schumer's win (not to play down their work, but the brains behind Schumer's win was Schumer). Naturally, neither would speak for attribution, but one needs only a little inside knowledge and common sense to know they must be in the running. Isay may not want to leave his still-new job, but Morris seems likely to sign on, because there are only two A-list media firms in New York, Morris's and Hank Sheinkopf's, and only one of those two (Morris) has never worked with another Morris, Dick -- got those names straight? -- the kinky triangulator whom Hillary thinks of as the hell-spawn of Beelzebub.

But Morris won't be the only media consultant. I mean, this isn't just any campaign. And so there's Mandy Grunwald, a veteran of Bill's campaigns. She lives in Washington, but she grew up on the Upper East Side (whew! good thing it wasn't Upper West!) and worked on three Pat Moynihan campaigns (not to mention Ruth Messinger's -- and let's not). Then there's Bob Shrum, also Washington-based but with ample New York experience.

I could go on, but the names wouldn't mean anything to you, and you get the idea. The point is this: While excitement is a good thing indeed, and all too few political candidates generate much these days, there is such a thing as too much of it. "Can I just say something to you" -- guess how -- "off the record?" asked one potential staff-person-in-waiting. "This campaign might turn into a mess. Way too many cooks. That's actually scaring some people off."

Without question, there will be madness around this campaign, and it'll be up to Ickes to sort it all out. If you've followed politics at all in the Clinton era, you know that he's made of pretty tough stuff. My one on-the-record quote of the week comes from Ken Sunshine, who runs his own public-relations firm and has known Ickes forever: "All these yentas and hangers-on in New York politics trying to curry favor? Good luck with Harold."

Sunshine knows whereof he speaks. Ickes, insiders speculate, won't take an official title in this campaign, but he'll be running the show. Ickes's reemergence is one of the extraordinary back stories -- and an oddly little-remarked-upon one at that -- of this whole extraordinary drama. I remember Ickes back in 1990 talking about this guy Clinton, who was going to surprise people. Ickes was one of Clinton's chief New York backers, of course. Clinton finally called on him to do scandal control, and for his trouble he was crudely cut loose by the White House when his usefulness had evaporated.

But Ickes is the most hard-assed liberal in America, and through all the Whitewater agita and all the testimony and all the legal fees his association with the Clintons brought him, Ickes -- unlike, say, George Stephanopoulos -- kept his lip buttoned and his chin up. And today, here he is, back at it, putting together what will be one of the most exhilaratingly strange campaigns ever. Ickes and Hillary both stood by their man, and both suffered for it. When I spoke to him in January about a possible Hillary race, he said that many people would see it as a race of redemption. He may not have meant only hers.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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