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Hillary Clinton v. the GOP

Incumbent Hillary Rodham Clinton will undoubtedly be the prohibitive favorite in New York's Senate race next year, whether her Republican challenger is Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro or Nixon son-in-law Edward Cox. Yet the GOP nomination is definitely worth having.

With Clinton sporting a 63 percent statewide job-approval rating in the latest Quinnipiac University poll (of 1,498 registered voters, taken July 27-August 1) and even boasting a 60 percent approval rating upstate, the odds of her losing re-election are extremely slim. Just last year, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry pulled 58 percent of the vote in the state, not far off the 59 percent that President Clinton received in 1996 and the 60 percent that Vice President Gore won in 2000. This latest Quinnipiac poll indicates that just 35 percent of New Yorkers approve of the job that President Bush is doing. So the Empire State hardly seems like a place where a Democratic incumbent with 60 percent-plus approval ratings is going to lose.

Nevertheless, for Pirro, who has never run statewide, and for Cox, who has never run anywhere, the GOP nomination is worth fighting for. Simply put, the Republican nominee will be amply funded, with conservative Clinton-haters from all over the country supplying upwards of $10 million. Also, the name recognition and contacts that a nominee would earn, on someone else's nickel, in a race against Clinton would be invaluable for a future statewide race. And best yet, hardly anyone would expect the Republican to win. So, in a sense, losing would be impossible.

Although Clinton's goal is to win re-election, her real objective is to win big and to show enough strength in Republican suburbs and upstate counties to convince Democratic doubters that she could win Republican and independent votes in a presidential race while holding on to moderate and conservative Democrats. In short, that she could win a presidential general election.

As I write this, I can almost hear New York state's conservative and Republican activists grinding their teeth at the suggestion that Clinton is virtually unbeatable. But the case for thinking that Clinton will win is quite strong.

First, Democrats and incumbents -- especially Democratic incumbents -- tend to do well in New York's statewide elections. In the absence of a Republican tidal wave like the 1994 tsunami that swept away Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and put George Pataki in office, it's hard for New York Republicans to win statewide or for incumbents to lose. Of New York's five independently elected statewide officials, both senators, the attorney general, and the comptroller are Democrats. Only Pataki is a Republican. No Democratic senator from New York lost re-election in the 20th century. And before Cuomo, the last governor to lose re-election was W. Averell Harriman in 1958.

Second, since Clinton's 55 percent to 43 percent victory over Republican Rep. Rick Lazio in 2000, she has crisscrossed the state and massaged its voters to the point that her Quinnipiac job-approval rating of 38 percent in February 2001, just after she took office, climbed to 65 percent in February of this year -- and is holding fairly steady.

Clinton enjoys 70 percent approval in New York City, 58 percent in the city's suburbs, and 59 percent even in the non-urban areas of upstate. These are very impressive numbers, ones any incumbent would like to see 15 months before Election Day.

Third, either Pirro or Cox would bring baggage into the race. Pirro, who says she is "pro-choice" on abortion, would have to worry about a Conservative Party candidate splitting the anti-Clinton vote. Abortion is a non-negotiable issue for that party. Cox calls himself "pro-life," and that stand would make it difficult for him to attract those moderate, suburban Republican women who have become such a huge problem for the GOP, particularly in the Northeast. With Neither Pirro nor Cox known statewide, trial heats mean little, but Quinnipiac polling shows Clinton beating Pirro 63 to 29 percent, and beating Cox 64 to 26 percent.

So, while Clinton is certainly the clear favorite heading toward November 2006, Pirro and Cox are smart to see real value in winning their party's nomination. Being the Republican chosen to do battle with Hillary Clinton is a paid-for stepping-stone toward statewide office down the road.

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