In a GOP bastion, Sen. Clinton earns praise of skeptics
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published December 25, 2007
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - To hear Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her allies tell it, all this talk of a polarizing Hillary is hooey. Just look at how she won over Republican areas of New York state, they say, and you'll see how she can win over red states once they get to know her better.
Outside the Price Chopper in Hudson, N.Y., on a recent rainy afternoon, the reaction to that thesis was, shall we say, a tad skeptical.
"Hillary Clinton!? I Haaaate that woman," retiree Albert Smith bellowed. "I don't want her back in the White House."
Asked of she had been a poor senator, Smith paused. He cocked his head and dropped his voice considerably.
"Actually," the Republican mused, "I'd have to say she's been okay in the Senate. She knows the issues. She's been fine."
Welcome to New York's 20th Congressional District, a Republican stronghold where the image of Clinton is, like most everything about her, multilayered and complex.
It's easy to find Republicans and independents ambivalent or hostile toward Clinton's presidential campaign. Some voters pointedly note that she never made good on her promise to create 200,000 jobs in struggling upstate New York, and others lament that a Clinton presidency would only mean more polarization in America.
But even those who dislike her tend to give her credit for learning the intricacies of her adopted home state and fighting for it. If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, there's at least some evidence amid the farms and depressed rural villages across New York to suggest she could wear well over what may be the longest general election campaign in presidential history.
"I think she's really shown she can do the job," said Republican Ellen Crawford, a family advocate from Columbiaville. "A lot of people around here are very strong Republicans and the fact that so many of them are undecided about whether they'd vote for Hillary Clinton for president says a lot about the job she's done."
Does Clinton's success in Republican leaning New York counties prove she can win over Republicans across the country? No.
It's true that in her 2006 Senate re-election campaign Clinton won 58 of New York's 62 counties, compared to just 15 counties in 2000. But Clinton spent $35-million in a horrible year for Republicans to beat a little-known former Yonkers mayor, John Spencer, who spent a fraction of her money.
"That was a function of no real opposition. I don't think that Hillary really wants to point to her last race as indicative of a tough race where you're really tested," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had planned to run against Clinton for the Senate seat in 2000 until prostate cancer sidelined him, told the St. Petersburg Times. "I'm the only Republican who has a chance to win New York."
A Dec. 4-10 Quinnipiac University poll found Clinton leading Giuliani 53 percent to 32 percent in New York, increasing her lead by 7 percentage points since October.
But as strong as Clinton performed in 2006, her landslide win still fell short by 3 points of the 70 percent share fellow Democrat Elliot Spitzer received in the New York governor's race.
Besides, winning upstate New York, where Republicans tend to be the moderate Rockefeller variety, is hardly akin to winning upstate South Carolina. Or Florida's Panhandle, for that matter.
Still, Clinton demonstrated in New York that she can change people's negative perceptions of her.
'Fighter for New York'
"Absolutely," said Fred Dicker of the New York Post, the dean of the Capitol press corps in New York. "She's seen as a fighter for New York and is perceived as a skilled politician who's not necessarily an archetypal liberal. ... She has impressed many, many people who are Republican-oriented with her knowledge and interest in issues that matter to them."
This congressional district, dotted with hardscrabble towns, apple and dairy farms overlooking breathtaking vistas, and a few yuppiefied downtowns to please transplanted Manhattanites, stretches 140 miles between the Hudson River Valley to Lake Placid in the Adirondacks.
It's the birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but even he couldn't win this Republican stronghold when he ran for president. President Bush won it by 8 percentage points in 2004, and 7 percentage points in 2000, though a Democrat did unseat a Republican for the District 20 congressional seat last year.
It was in this district, at the rural Pindars Corners farm of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that Clinton in July 1999 announced a "listening tour" of New York as a precursor to formally announcing for the Senate.
What started off as a battle of titans - Clinton vs. Giuliani - turned into a lopsided contest between Clinton and Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio. Though he matched her roughly $40-million in spending, Lazio never proved to be serious competition.
Pundits derided the listening tour as a phony political show, but in many respects it signaled the kind of senator she would be.
Throughout her first term she constantly visited local communities, particularly in struggling Republican upstate New York, and her attention to detail showed. Local governments came to see that she was accessible and responsive to their requests for support of flood relief or economic development grants. She dug in and learned their issues.
"The term I would use for her, which I don't think we can apply to enough public officials, is that she's genuinely curious," said Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce president Garry Douglas.
He describes himself as a "very conservative" Republican, and said Clinton would make 2008 the first time he had voted for a Democrat for president. "To get to know Hillary personally is to like her. It has moved many thousands of people upstate beyond whatever impression that may have had of her. She's disarming, she's real, she's genuine."
Peter Gregg of the New York Farm Bureau recounted Clinton's visit to the Washington County Fair last year, a vignette he said is typical of Clinton.
"Her advance people said she probably wouldn't be able to stay long, and then she literally stayed for hours. She really took a great interest in chatting with farmers and learning about what they were exhibiting," said Gregg, noting that farmers' initial skepticism of Clinton disappeared fast. "We love her."
That's hardly a universal view, though. Talk to enough people in this congressional district and it's clear there's no guarantee Clinton would win it in a presidential contest. But they also suggest the candidate whom many people think they already know, perhaps too well, is not so predictable.
"She came in and everybody said she's this carpetbagger who just wanted a stepping stone to the White House. But then people saw that she's extremely well-prepared, did her homework, and really paid attention to upstate New York," said 66-year-old independent voter Nikole Mook, who manages book sales at the Saratoga Springs Library. "My next door neighbor wears a shirt that says, 'I don't speak to Democrats,' and I think even he thinks she's been a good senator."
That doesn't mean he'll vote for a President Clinton, though.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.
Clinton's election record in New York
15 Number of counties she won in 2000.
58 Number of counties she won in 2006.
55 Percentage of vote she received in 2000.
67 Percentage of vote she received in 2006.
"Well, if you look at what I've done in New York. ... I won re-election with nearly 67 percent of the vote, carrying a lot of the same counties that George Bush had carried just two years before. I've been able to get a lot of Republican and independent support in this campaign."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Fox News Sunday, Sept. 23
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