New York starts the mudslinging

I discovered from my travels last week that the long hot summer of 2000 has already begun in the South: not only are temperatures soaring into the high eighties already in Florida, but tempers over the fate of Elian Gonzalez were fraying everywhere, with mobs threatening to take matters into their own hands. So I sought relief up north, where the baseball season began last Monday and Washington's cherry blossom heralded the gentle arrival of spring.

Relief was short-lived, though, because I soon found myself immersed in the most seething, ruthless battle of all so far: this year's New York senator race between Hillary Clinton and the current New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani.

Even Hillary is already wilting from the fury of it all, though there are seven more months of campaigning before election day. Last Monday, she lamented that she has frequently told her husband how he could have said or done things differently, but now realises how hard life on the campaign trail really is. "You must grow skin as tough as a rhinoceros," she said (quoting her heroine Eleanor Roosevelt). "So if you look carefully at my skin . . ."

It is already becoming clear, in fact, that Bill Clinton - now in his final ten months in office - struck a deal with his wife to atone for his sins with Monica et al: to become the enthusiastic, chief attack dog in her electoral battle, saying things she cannot or does not want to say. With Hillary beginning to pull slightly ahead in some polls after little movement for seven months - though she still has a long way to go - Clinton lashed out last weekend at a "right-wing venom machine" out to get his wife in New York.

It is fast burgeoning, too, into the most expensive non-presidential election in history: in the first three months of this year, Giuliani garnered $7.3m ($1.5m of it at a single fundraising dinner last month at Cello, an upmarket seafood restaurant in Manhattan) compared with $4m by Hillary. So far, Giuliani's coffers have more than $19m, compared to Hillary's $12m - by no means chicken-feed for either, but a significant advantage for Giuliani. He is now certain to beat the previous $21m record for fundraising for a non-presidential election, held by Oliver North in his unsuccessful Senate bid in 1994.

Meanwhile, the supermarket tabloids, seen by countless million Americans at checkouts, are full of stories such as "Rudy has list of Hillary's lesbian lovers" - in this case also claiming a neat angle with "Chelsea's shame over mom's gay lifestyle". A close aide to Hillary was telling me last weekend that he expects the battle to become even dirtier. For the record, there have long been such rumours about Hillary but, to the best of my knowledge, they are baseless; as far as Giuliani is concerned, it is well-known that his marriage is a sham and that he has a mistress, but (as far as I know) this has not been reported.

In those now-stirring polls, Hillary has a commanding lead in New York city itself (with Giuliani mustering a pathetic 28 per cent), but in rural upstate areas it is the other way round. The battle will probably therefore revolve around the state's many suburbs, where Giuliani is leading Hillary by 59-31 points. Although the state is one-and-a-half times the size of Scotland with five times its population, it has only 4.7 million registered voters; at least 20 per cent of those are floating voters.

It is nevertheless still going to be a hard election for Hillary to win: her main hope is that it will be one Giuliani will lose. Although as ruthless a political scrapper as they come, he is a politically unusual Republican who has already pulled the rug from under Hillary's feet by hijacking Democratic mainstream issues such as gun control, abortion and gay rights; his main shortcoming, however, is that he is a hot-headed man prone to blowing his stack at inopportune times.

He did this last month when undercover New York cops shot dead a 26-year-old Haitian called Patrick Dorismond in what was meant to be a drugs sting, making him one of six unarmed black men shot dead by police in 13 months. Dorismond was not only innocent, but the son of a popular Haitian singer. Instead of calling for an inquiry and making the usual noises of responsible officialdom, Giuliani lashed out at the victim. Loudly proclaiming that Dorismond was "no altar boy", he released juvenile police records which showed that Dorismond had been guilty of nothing more than disorderly conduct.

Even fellow Republicans were appalled by Giuliani's intemperateness, implying as he did that anybody who has not been an altar boy is now liable to be gunned down by his cops. (It turned out that the detective who shot him was no altar boy either, being a Hispanic already in trouble for being overly trigger-happy - which only added to pre-existing tensions between blacks and Hispanics.)

A leading New York Republican congressman confided to me last weekend that he thinks this will not be the first gaffe Giuliani makes between now and November. "With Rudy, you know there'll be five or six more," he told me. Another Republican Congressman, Rick Lazio, is even more outspoken: "We are in the process of potentially blowing this race," he admits. Brace yourself, then, for more fireworks in what will be the most entertaining political sideshow this year: rhino-skinned Hillary v hot-headed Rudy.

"The only way they can win," Hillary's chief cheerleader proclaimed last weekend from his presidential pulpit, "is to convince people that we're space aliens." Quite. But many voters already think exactly that about the Clintons. It's going to be a very close, dirty and entertaining business indeed: so watch this space.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy