WASHINGTON — At the beginning of this election cycle, New York Republicans had one goal: to thwart Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects -- by defeating Clinton in her bid for re-election to the Senate, or at least coming close.
"Stopping Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most important thing you and I can do as Republicans in the next two years," the chairman of the state party said in an April 2005 fundraising letter. "You could say it's our duty as Republicans."
But with New York's Republican Senate primary taking place next week, and after the GOP candidates in it have committed countless gaffes and bloodied each other in a divisive contest, the only thing they seem to have stopped is making the race against Clinton competitive.
Indeed, Clinton -- who leads in the polls anywhere from 25 to 40 points over her GOP rivals -- appears poised to replicate what George W. Bush did in 1998: He won re-election as Texas governor by a wide margin against a weak opponent, enabling him to rack up impressive showings among key demographic groups, and that helped catapult his presidential bid two years later.
Clinton's advisers, a national Republican strategist says, "couldn't have dreamed up a better scenario." In fact, the Clinton campaign currently has $22 million in the bank as of June 30, and the money that's left over can be used for a presidential bid.
32-seconds of silence
The troubles for New York Republicans began in August 2005, when then-GOP favorite Jeanine Pirro kicked off her campaign to unseat Clinton. Midway through her remarks, Pirro went speechless for an entire 32 seconds because page 10 of her speech was missing. Democrats quickly pounced on the embarrassment by creating a Web ad showing Pirro during these 32 seconds, with the music from "Jeopardy" in the background.
The ad's kicker was: "Without a script, she is speechless." Plagued by fundraising problems and other woes, Pirro dropped out of the race in December and decided to run for attorney general instead.
The blunders have continued for the two other Republicans candidates who still remain in the field, former Pentagon official Kathleen Troia "KT" McFarland and former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer. In March, according to the New York Post, McFarland told a crowd that Clinton's campaign had been spying on her from her bedroom window and flying helicopters over her home in the Hamptons; McFarland later said she had been joking.
But in an interview three months later, McFarland told New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams that the news of her "helicopters" remark had been devastating. "I sat in a ratty old robe, tears spilling down my face. To ease my anguish, I killed off half a pint of ice cream. Next morning, I was in the fetal position. Still crying."
Then in May, McFarland's chief strategist, Ed Rollins, essentially accused Spencer of bigamy when he charged that Spencer fathered children with his chief of staff while he had been married to another woman. Pirro repeated the charge in a heated debate in August. Spencer fired back: "You have no way of knowing my private life. I say to you, Mrs. McFarland, shame on you. Shame on you as a mother of children and a woman yourself for talking about my wife and my family that way."
Later in August, Spencer unveiled a television ad slamming Clinton on national security issues. "Islamic fascists still hate us," the ad stated on the screen. "They still want to attack us." But there was one problem: The ad misspelled fascists; it had "facists" instead.
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Shallow pool of candidates
These gaffes and this intra-party fighting -- and there are plenty of more examples -- have amused New York Democrats. "This is really quite the comedy," says Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign. "The Marx Brothers would have been better candidates. He added, "They would have been better off running no one."
How did the New York Republican Party get in this situation, especially when Republican George Pataki has been governor for three consecutive terms, and when the state GOP has had six years to prepare a challenge to Clinton? Part of the problem, observers say, is a shallow pool of good Republican candidates. "There is no farm team and no effort to build the kind of bench that gives you a fighting chance against Hillary," a New York Republican strategist points out.
In addition, other observers say, Clinton is now such a political force that the prominent state Republicans out there -- like Pataki or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- didn't want to take her on.
With the primary set for Tuesday, polls show that the socially conservative Spencer is leading McFarland, who supports abortion rights. But the polls also show Clinton -- who faces a primary challenge of her own next week -- trouncing both Republicans in the general election. "I do think it does raise the expectation to where I'd be surprised if she doesn't get 70 percent," says Jennifer Duffy, who monitors Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Others don't believe Clinton, due to an expected anti-Hillary vote, will be able to match the 71 percent Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., won during his re-election bid two years. Or come close to the 68 percent Bush won in Texas in 1998.
But the Republicans running against Clinton aren't ready to concede the race just yet. Rob Ryan, a spokesman for the Spencer campaign, says if they win the primary, they'll be able to debate Clinton on the issues, which could help narrow the gap in the polls. "Two months in politics is worth about 20 years in the real world. You never know what will happen," Ryan argues.
"I'm not saying we're going to defeat her. But I think we have the potential for a horserace."
And even if Clinton wins as expected, Republicans argue that she doesn't have a clear shot to winning the presidency. "If she wins, the good news ... is the rest of America is not New York," says Nelson Warfield, an adviser to the Spencer campaign. "She has to do a lot of work in the 49 other states."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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