'Pirrotechnic' campaign against Hillary

Posted: Aug 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro has declared her candidacy for Senate in New York. She immediately took aim at the incumbent: "I am running against Hillary Clinton ... "

 As a resident of Chappaqua in Westchester County (by the way, I'm told, very unreliably, that Chappaqua is an old Indian word for separate teepees), Ms. Clinton already has Ms. Pirro as her county prosecutor. Now, Ms. Pirro is about to unleash her considerable prosecuting and public relations skills exclusively on behalf of Ms. Clinton's political demise. This will be a campaign that should be edifying to watch (particularly if you like World Wide Wrestling pay-for-view events).

 Democrats and the Hillary folks don't appear to be worried about re-election, while too many Republicans seem to be willing to give Hillary a pass. They are both wrong in their judgments.

 While the junior senator from New York holds an impressive opening poll advantage of 63 percent to 29 percent over Pirro, this is a campaign well worth vigorously fighting. Hillary R. Clinton has nowhere to go but down in her re-election bid -- and how far down is yet to be determined.

 Moreover, her re-election campaign result will inevitably be seen as either an impressive or not impressive launch of her presidential campaign. Hillary is likely to grow to hate that 63 percent-29 percent advantage she currently holds, because any win much under 60 percent will likely be something of a letdown. Anything under 55 percent will be judged a near disaster -- inevitably resulting in the obligatory campaign shake-up just as she enters the 2007 presidential launch. And, of course, if lightning strikes ...

 While I have long believed (and stated) that Hillary is a formidable candidate for president, she also has formidable dangers to avoid. As the unquestioned leader in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and as the holder of a 34 percent advantage in her Senate re-election campaign, she will almost inevitably deploy the strategy of "sitting on a lead." There is probably no more dangerous stratagem in American politics.

 Of course, her campaign advisers will not call it that -- even to themselves. But it is damnably hard to avoid sitting on a lead when you have a real lead. During my decades in politics (before I took to providing color commentary for the passing parade), I had been involved in many races in which either my candidate or our opponent sat on a lead.

 When you are up by 20 points and you are planning the next day of the campaign at 8 p.m., when someone around the table suggests making a controversial charge the next day that may undercut the candidate if it doesn't play out just right -- even the most aggressive advisors are inclined to say "are you nuts?"

 On each individual decision, the smart play for the candidate with a big lead is to play it safe. There are always obvious, tangible dangers in running an aggressive campaign when you are way ahead. But there is an intangible danger to the tone and spirit of a campaign that finds itself sitting on a lead. And understand: No campaign decides to sit on a lead, it just sort of happens as the result of a series of seemingly rational decisions. You could ask Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and John F. Kerry (who, because he only thought he was more electable, actually sat on a non-lead.)

 The campaign not only loses its own inner spirit and enthusiasm -- but the public begins to see the candidate as uncommitted to anything. It becomes boring and takes on the tone of a corporate press release. Most of the great campaigns (Kennedy in 1960, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992) were running for dear life right up to election morning.

 Hillary R. Clinton is particularly vulnerable to this process. She is already seen as trying to move to the presumed safe center. If she were a better politician (like her husband), she would do it without being noticed. In her effort to please more and more interests, she will inspire fewer and fewer voters. Playing it cynically safe in her re-election campaign will only increase her vulnerability.

 If Ms. Pirro can mount a campaign capable of gaining a reasonable amount of attention acting as an annoying mosquito day after day and month after month, it is likely to bring out the most unappealing imperial manners in Ms. Clinton -- as Queen Hillary ignores or dismisses each of the charges.

 As her 63 percent lead dwindles to a still respectable 57 percent or 56 percent or 55 percent next summer, she and her campaign advisers may suddenly feel the need to do something. She may take a liberal stand on a few issues to re-build enthusiasm in her base south of 96 Street. That may well save her re-election bid from embarrassment, but it would undercut her eight-year presidential strategy of pretending to be moderate.