In a conversation last spring, Sen. Hillary Clinton was responding to my request to scope out the likely GOP candidates for the 2008 presidential election. She had already declined to say whether she would seek her party’s nomination, but she was paying attention to the other team.
We agreed Arizona Sen. John McCain would run, and then she came to Rudy Giuliani. “I’m not sure what Rudy is going to do,” she said.
I shook my head and said he was definitely running. And I told her that “I have long believed that 2008 will come down to Rudy against you for the White House.”
With that, she broke into a broad smile, slapped the tabletop in front of her with an open palm and said, eyes twinkling, “Well then, we would finish what we started.”
Bingo. In that high-spirited and candid moment, Clinton revealed that she, too, was intrigued by the second chance for a face-off with Giuliani. Their 2000 Senate race was aborted when Giuliani developed prostate cancer and dropped out. Six years later, it is likely that our longing for a rematch, this time to the finish, is about to be satisfied.
The report that Giuliani has launched an exploratory committee to test the White House waters means the Rudy versus Hillary Showdown is beginning. It was no surprise, given that both of these titans are the front-runners in their respective parties. Each must survive the primary meat grinder, but they will because they deserve each other as the most worthy opponents in politics today. They are, in large measure, the personification of their parties, their policies and cultures. Male vs. Female, the Daddy party vs. the Mommy party, is a big part of the dynamics.
In our conversation in a Manhattan restaurant, Clinton wasn’t committing to her own run—notice her conditional tense of “we would finish,” not “we will finish.” But there was no doubt what she was thinking. And perhaps relishing.
Who can blame her? She’s at the top of her game, and now her party is triumphant. Giuliani’s launching comes two days after it was reported she has kept her Senate campaign team and office intact, a sign that her next race has already begun. So all the pieces are coming together right on schedule. Never mind that we just finished an election. Let’s get this one on.
Clinton may not be tanned and rested, but she is surely ready. She walloped her goofball Senate opponent last week, getting 67 percent of the vote. She spent $29 million running up the score in a game where she made few mistakes. Even her ducking the question that had potential to scare off voters—would she promise to serve all six years?—didn’t hurt. Her rote response, a version of which she gave in a debate, was both coy and bold: “If that is a concern for people, they should factor that into their decision in November.”
That answer typified her cruise-control approach. Thanks to the money and a sacrificial GOP lamb, she had the luxury of choosing her time and topics. She helped raise money for Democrats across the country while refusing to be drawn into any crazy New York liberal stances that would hurt her nationally. She famously wore a Christian cross around her neck, which was the equivalent of a flashing neon light that shouted “CENTRIST.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but right now, God might be a Democrat. The party’s sweep of Congress, and huge gains in statehouses across America, were a smackdown of Bush and the GOP, especially over the mess in Iraq. Dems will hold 28 governorships, a huge advantage in a presidential election.
In addition to that structural hurdle, Giuliani and other Republican candidates will bear the burden of a presidency haunted by charges of incompetence. The minute they propose a solution to Islamic terror, Iran, North Korea or Social Security, they will be compared to Bush’s positions. That won’t be helpful.
Giuliani will have his own burdens, too. Besides his pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights stances being a tough sell in some GOP primaries, the former mayor hasn’t run a full campaign since he was re-elected in 1997. Although he has stumped the country for Republicans in the last three cycles, he has mostly been building an impressive business empire, giving speeches for up to $150,000 per and enjoying a busy social life with his third wife, Judith Nathan. “There’s a little rust here,” one insider confided Monday about a political campaign.
That’s OK. We’re a patient people. After all, we’ve waited six years for this one.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News.