Politics, as every schoolboy was once supposed to know, is the art of compromise. That's why that famous strange bed is often so crowded. Voting can be a matter of deciding who's worse, and may the lesser man win.
Almost out of the blue, or at least almost out of the office of Karl Rove, a tough, good-looking district attorney named Jeanine Pirro, who lives only 14 miles from Hillary Clinton's palatial colonial mansion in Chappaqua, decides to contend with Edward Cox, a Wall Street lawyer who is the son-in-law of the late Richard Nixon, for the right to challenge the junior senator from New York for her seat in the U.S. Senate.
Her entry into the Republican primary with Mr. Cox converted what looked like a shoe-in for Mrs. Clinton into a prospective fight against a challenger in stiletto heels with genuine star power. People magazine once put Jeanine Pirro on its list of the "50 Most Beautiful People." She has been a success on the side of the angels, sending child molesters to the cages where they belong. Feminists and pro-family groups love her for her work with abused women, her defense of rape victims and her imaginative programs for sweeping the Internet to catch pedophiles.
She poses a Hobson's choice for some conservative Republicans. On most of the high-profile social issues, she doesn't differ much from the woman she wants to challenge. Both oppose gay marriage but support civil unions. Both support the death penalty; neither wants to eliminate the ban on assault weapons. Hillary Clinton voted for going to war against Iraq. Jeanine Pirro supports the war on terror. Both are adamantly pro-choice.
The real titillation is the baggage they bring along with their husbands. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath, and is most colorfully remembered for his particularly sordid Oval Office affair with an intern half his age. But that was a long time ago, and his wife's friends regard his politics as a plus that more than balances the minus of his morals.
Albert Pirro supports a child born outside of his marriage, and for 11 months he was the guest of the U.S. government for evading federal income taxes. His associates are less than savory. (So, too, some of his wife's; she has been accused of taking money that smells like mafia.) She was elected to her third term as district attorney in spite of all that. Nevertheless, like the former first lady, she stood by her man, if with considerably less fervor.
The tabloids would relish turning a wonkish and dull re-election campaign into something vastly entertaining. "You know how the papers are going to love this, two harridans mixing it up," Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union in New York, tells the New York Observer. "This could be the equivalent of mud wrestling for fraternity boys."
This would be the bout of the million-dollar babies. Hillary haters across the country would write checks for Jeanine Pirro just to make life miserable for Hillary, and Republicans everywhere would see the race as an opportunity to rough up the prospective Democratic presidential nominee for '08. Democratic money earmarked for other contentious races would have to be diverted to New York.
But a tough race could be an asset for Hillary Clinton. She's had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine and she's still standing, proof that it takes more than a village to subdue the Clintons. The No. 1 Pirro issue would be her promise, easily taken at full value, that she would be a full-time senator and would serve a full term. She will need a lot more than that. The New York Post, which for years gleefully stereotyped Hillary as a callous carpetbagger, has all but embraced her now, making great fun of Ms. Pirro's debut as a Senate candidate when she lost a page of her speech. The Post relishes the soap-opera details of her husband's 22-year-old "love child."
Since 1974 no Republican candidate has won a statewide race without the support of New York's Conservative Party. If Jeanine Pirro is the nominee, conservatives will have to decide whether they want a senator who's somewhat more liberal than they are or an incumbent who's a lot more liberal than they are.
A dark horse Ms. Pirro certainly is, but so was Giacomo, the 50-1 long shot who won the Kentucky Derby earlier this year. Handicapping politicians is a little like handicapping horses, and surprises can happen in the homestretch. But first the horses have to get out of the gate.