How badly will first ladys gaffe hurt her Senate bid

Hillary Rodham Clinton's senatorial campaign advisers had a punch-drunk air of disbelief about them this week as they struggled to absorb the fallout from their candidate's disastrous visit in the West Bank town of Ramallah last week.

It wasn't enough that Clinton sat in polite silence while Suha Arafat, Yasser's wife, delivered a luridly anti-Israel diatribe. Afterward the candidate had to go give Suha Arafat a kiss on the cheek, while the cameras whirred.

New York's tabloids milked it for days, with banner headlines like "Shame on Hillary." It made friend and foe wonder: What was the first lady thinking?

For the record, campaign aides said it was one big non-event, an excuse for yet another round of Clinton-bashing. Their boss, they insisted, had been genuinely distressed by Suha Arafat's unexpected rant about Israel's supposed use of "poison gas" on Palestinian women and children, increasing their cancer rate. (A Palestinian official later said Suha Arafat had meant to say "tear gas.")

But as first lady, Clinton had to restrain herself so as not to undermine the peace process. She waited a day before voicing her displeasure, and then spoke in measured, diplomatic tones. Surely the voters will applaud her restraint, the aides said.

Privately, though, the candidate's advisers were tearing their hair out. As they studied the landscape, it became clear that the damage was real. True, many voters, perhaps even most, may welcome Clinton's diplomatic restraint. But some won't — and they could be numerous enough to hand the election to Clinton's Republican rival, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At the very least, she's given her foes a potent weapon to use against her over the coming year.

"It was a great week for the Hillary-bashers," said one senior campaign adviser. "But the election is still a year away. This was a lesson. Hopefully she'll learn it." But maybe she won't.

In the simplest sense, Clinton's Ramallah gaffe hurt her with Jewish voters. Jews make up 12 to 15 percent of New York voters, but they play a much bigger role. Conventional wisdom says a Democrat needs two-thirds of the Jewish vote to win statewide office. That's been true for a half century. Before her Middle East trip Clinton was polling just under half.

She needs to win over another 20 percent of the Jewish vote that's wavering. That fragment, the Jewish swing vote, is not solidly Democratic or Republican. It picks candidates in large part over questions of Jewish safety. When a Palestinian accuses Israel of poisoning children, those voters expect a firm reply.

"If a politician can't defend Jews against blood libels, what are they there for?" said a senior official with a Jewish organization in New York.

Clinton was already vulnerable among Jewish swing voters because of her 1998 endorsement of Palestinian statehood. Now she's been captured kissing Suha Arafat on tape, to be rerun endlessly next year. She's in real trouble.

"She could theoretically make up the difference among minorities or women," says pollster Lee Miringoff of New York's Marist Institute for Public Opinion Research. "But right now she's doing badly across the board."

A year is a long time in politics. Giuliani could make a big mistake in the coming months. But few political insiders expect it — at least not on the Israel issue. Hawkish Jews have been one of Giuliani's strongest support bases since he entered electoral politics. He's still remembered for throwing Yasser Arafat out of a United Nations 50th anniversary gala in 1995.

Beyond numbers, though, it's likely that the most serious fallout from the Ramallah blunder will be among Clinton's own core supporters: Democratic loyalists and liberal activists.

By letting herself get caught on stage during an anti-Semitic-sounding tirade, and then failing to respond for a full day, Clinton damaged her reputation for political savvy.

From the outset, Clinton's Senate candidacy has been an experiment. No first lady ever ran for office from the White House before. Nobody knows what it means or how it works.

Critics have warned all year that mixing the two roles would set up impossible conflicts, to the detriment of both. Clinton's defenders insisted she could pull it off, because she had the political instincts and skills to navigate that kind of obstacle course.

Last week's Middle East trip was the first laboratory test. But the results seem clearcut. Candidacy and first ladyhood don't mix.

A first lady can dust herself off and move on. A candidate has to prove her mettle.

Most important, aides say, if Clinton hadn't been first lady she wouldn't have had to follow the advice of White House national security aides and refrain from criticizing Arafat to her face. She was hobbled, staffers say, by the fact that her entire campaign staff had been left behind in New York. They would have told her to hit back fast and hard.

But that argument simply reinforces doubts about Clinton's own political smarts.

"There's always been a question of her political savvy," says one Democratic activist with close ties to the Clinton White House. "There was Whitewater and Travelgate. Last month there was the issue of the campaign ads she paid for with soft money. Now this. The bottom line is, does this woman have a political bone in her body?"