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Can Republicans Test Hillary Clinton Next November?

Can attorney Ed Cox or former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, both of whom are running for the New York Republican nomination for Senate, throw a scare into Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) when she runs for re-election next year? No — but that won’t stop some TV programs or magazines from hyping the Senate race.

[IMGCAP(1)]Cox, a trustee of the State University of New York, is probably best known for being the husband of Tricia Nixon and son-in-law of the late President Richard Nixon. Cox chaired the state Council of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and is currently chairman of the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.

Spencer served two terms as mayor of Yonkers, the fourth-largest city in New York state, running on both the Republican and Conservative Party lines.

Spencer’s Web site, which is still under construction, includes a biography and a letter from the candidate that takes shots at liberal Republicans (read Cox) and argues that the party needs a conservative nominee who can draw contrasts with Clinton.

Cox’s Web site is far more elaborate at this point, and he has begun to make the case that Empire State voters should not give Clinton another term when she is up for re-election next year.

In late June on CNN’s “Inside Politics,” Cox noted that Clinton “parachuted into New York” to run for the Senate and is now “more concerned about the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire than the priorities of the people of New York.” He complained that she “promised 200,000 jobs for upstate New York” in 2000 but “has not been able to deliver.” And he promised to match his record in public service to hers.

Clinton’s “carpetbagging” simply isn’t an issue anymore. Voters elected her in 2000 despite her weak ties to the state, and after representing the state for six years in the Senate, she’s simply bulletproof on that issue. Her service on behalf of New Yorkers eliminates that “issue.”

Cox spends considerable time complaining that Clinton hasn’t delivered for the state, noting, for instance, that she can’t get anything done because she is in the minority.

Her alleged ineffectiveness could be an issue — except for the fact that New York voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are inclined to place blame for everything on the Republican-controlled White House, the GOP-controlled Congress and the Republican governor of New York state. Indeed, a majority of New Yorkers probably are happy to have Clinton and other Democrats on Capitol Hill blocking the GOP agenda.

Republicans are on the defensive nationally and in New York state, where Gov. George Pataki’s popularity has plummeted, so it is simply unrealistic to believe that an “effectiveness” argument will work. It might well work in a smaller state, but not in New York.

Arguing that Clinton is more interested in the White House in 2008 than in representing New York in the Senate also isn’t likely to stick. She is sure to deflect questions about her long-term ambitions until after her re-election, and if that line of argument worked at all, it would also be problematic for Sen. George Allen, the Virginia Republican who is also running for re-election as he lays the groundwork for a 2008 White House bid.

More generally, the Empire State has become — to put it mildly — increasingly inhospitable for Republicans running in statewide federal races. Forget the counter-argument that Republicans have won the governorship three times in a row and control one chamber of the state Legislature: Non-federal races simply are different animals from federal contests.

In the 2004 presidential race, Sen. John Kerry (D) overwhelmed President Bush, 59 percent to 40 percent, in New York state in 2004 — a margin of more than 1.3 million votes at the same time Bush was being re-elected by 3 million votes nationally. Kerry performed better in the Empire State than anywhere save New England.

Nationally, Republicans have won three of the past five presidential contests, but they failed to carry New York state in even one of those races. And Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in New York state have carried a majority of the total vote in just one of the past 14 races (in 1986, when then-Senator Al D’Amato defeated hapless Democrat Mark Green).

You don’t have to like Clinton or agree with her voting record or want her re-elected to acknowledge the obvious: Without a superstar opponent of the Rudy Giuliani variety, no Republican has even a remote chance of defeating her.

State political trends favor Clinton, as do incumbency and the nature of the cycle — a midterm election with a Republican in the White House. That’s not a hill for Republicans to climb; it’s Mount Everest.

So don’t be fooled when someone tries to tell you that Clinton is in deep trouble back home. Republican strategists should be grateful if their nominee forces her to spend money on her re-election. Talk about defeating Clinton is just not realistic at this point.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the

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