ALBANY, N.Y. — Like her fellow Democratic senator from neighboring Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton is facing her own potential anti-Iraq war primary challenge. But with a million differences.
Ned Lamont is a millionaire Connecticut businessman who has spent freely and dramatically narrowed Lieberman's lead in the polls.
In New York, Jonathan Tasini is a former president of the National Writers Union who had $25,565 in his Senate campaign account as of the end of March. Clinton had $20 million. Tasini hasn't even been included in most statewide independent polls.
Nonetheless, Tasini has refused to give up the fight against the most famous woman in American politics and leading contender among potential 2008 Democratic presidential contenders. He says he is under no illusions about his chances given his lack of money and her level of fame.
"Hillary Clinton is a classic example of celebrity culture in America and whether we can penetrate that is not a foregone conclusion," said the labor activist.
Having failed to even get his name placed in nomination at the Democratic state convention six weeks ago, Tasini has since been circulating petitions statewide seeking the signatures of at least 15,000 Democrats to force Clinton into a Sept. 12 primary. On Thursday, he was filing petitions with the state Board of Elections that he said contained about 40,000 signatures.
While the petitions are subject to challenge by the Clinton forces, veteran political observers give Tasini little chance of giving Clinton a Lieberman-Lamont style run for her mega-money even if he makes it onto the primary ballot.
"He will have the staying power of a snowflake on the hot New York City asphalt in August," said Chris Lehane, who helped run Al Gore's failed run for president in 2000.
And, having Lieberman fighting for his life in neighboring Connecticut makes life easier for Clinton, said Maurice Carroll, head of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"If it weren't for Joe Lieberman, the anti-war, purer-than-pure people would probably focus on this as a place to go," said Carroll, an expert in New York politics. "But, with Lieberman, they've got a lovely target for the next few weeks anyway."
Clinton's anti-war protestors
That is not to say that the anti-war crowd hasn't put Clinton in their sights. She was booed during a Washington appearance last month before a liberal group when she said it was wrong to set a strict timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. And Tasini and fellow anti-war activists have marched near the Clintons' home in Westchester County.
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"Hillary Clinton has been a huge disappointment in terms of being responsive to her constituents," said anti-war activist Mabel Leon, a retired state employee from Schenectady who supported Clinton when she first ran for the Senate in 2000, but who signed a Tasini petition this time around.
What has anti-war activists upset is that despite her criticism of President Bush's handling of the conflict, the former first lady voted to give him the authority to go to war in the first place and has refused ever since to back calls for an immediate troop withdrawal.
Some Clinton boosters believe a Tasini challenge will be good for the former first lady.
Troubles could help come 2008
"I'm sure it's annoying to have a primary opponent when you're someone like Hillary Clinton," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist. "On the other hand, what doesn't defeat you, makes you stronger."
Brazile said the Tasini challenge will help the potential presidential contender "understand what some on the left are complaining about."
While the Clinton camp officially takes almost no notice of Tasini, she has recently taken steps aimed at smoothing the way with anti-war activists, hiring a well-known liberal blogger for her campaign and announcing she would not back Lieberman if he lost the Democratic primary to Lamont.
An upside for Clinton, according to some, is that a Tasini primary could help reinforce her credentials as a moderate Democrat, an advantage if she wants to win the presidency.
"Every time Tasini attacks her for moving to the center, it helps her," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who worked on President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, but has not worked on the former first lady's campaigns. "If Tasini wasn't there, she would have had to invent him."
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