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By any objective measure, Fernando Ferrer looks to be sinkingfast.
Last week's polls had the Democratic mayoral candidate 27 points under incumbent Michael Bloomberg. Democratic city officials have been defecting to the side of his Republican opponent. And then there are the money woes. Ferrer has managed to raise just $4.5 million to date. Bloomberg, by contrast, has spent 10 times that, out of his own very deep pockets.
But as if to prove a lost cause can still float, an armada of big-name Democrats have lately shown up in the city, one by one, to tout Ferrer. Democratic national chair Howard Dean hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser on October 10. Former vice presidential hopefuland putative 2008 presidential contenderJohn Edwards followed suit 24 hours later, sending an e-mail to his donors and headlining a 200-person event. Senator John Kerry, eyeing another presidential bid, is expected to arrive soon, Ferrer advisers say, hitting the campaign trail on October 23 and 24, and good old Bill Clinton is supposedly just waiting for the right moment to pitch in.
That manifest of luminaries leaves out one big, big name: Hillary Clinton. Four weeks after she lavished praise on Ferrer in a high-profile endorsement, New York's junior senator and the Democratic Party's sole rock star has finally gotten involved again. On Monday, she appeared with Ferrer at a private luncheon in Manhattan attended by some 800 women. This Friday, she serves as his featured guest at a $250-a-head fundraiser.
Clinton spokesperson Ann Lewis says the senator and her campaign staff are "helping fundraising in every way we can permitted by law." That includes e-mail solicitations of Hillary fans, on Ferrer's behalf. Clinton's political action committee, HillPAC, will also give him a maximum contribution of $4,950. "We'll be doing as much as possible for his candidacy up until the election," Lewis adds.
That Clinton is again offering up her name and Rolodex is good news for the floundering Ferrer. But what she ends up doingor notfor the Democratic challenger in the weeks ahead may serve as a bellwether of what remains of his candidacy's viability.
On one hand, political analysts say, Clinton cannot afford to give him the cold shoulder. As the standard-bearer for the Latino community, Ferrer represents a powerful voting bloc not just in the state, but in the nation. Alienating Hispanic support could only harm her re-election bid next year, and beyond. On the other hand, Clinton, like any politician, wants to side with the winner, and conventional wisdom says Ferrer won't be it.
Douglas Muzzio, who teaches political science at Baruch College, explains that Mayor Bloomberg has won over a fair share of the Democratic vote50 percent, as compared to Ferrer's 42 percent. He attributes this kind of popularity to one thing: "Bloomberg is a RINO," he says, meaning a Republican in name only. The mayor has governed like a moderate Democratraising taxes and preserving programscourting "the same Democratic voters that Senator Clinton courts."
What that means for the senator is simple. Do what politicos call the "classic maneuver"i.e., endorse early, fade until the final weeks, then do enough to cover your bets. As Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf puts it: "She's doing more than just enough so as not to piss anybody off."
To hear some observers tell it, Ferrer is lucky to be getting help at all. One Democratic operative who has ties to the party's various power brokers believes Clinton would be sitting out of the race entirely if another Democrat had won the primarysay, Anthony Weiner or Gifford Miller, both of whom are young, ambitious, and close to competing power bases.
"I would say she is astutely aware that the more Democrats in high positions in this state, the less oxygen there is for her," says the operative, adding, "Freddy is a non-ego person. He is not a problem."
Egos and power trips aside, Clinton would have endorsed any Democratic nominee, at the very least, out of party loyalty. Those who know her say she will go out of her way to assist a fellow Democrat, hitting the campaign trail and raising money whenever possible. In 2002, she worked hard for Carl McCall, the former state comptroller who ran for governor. She crisscrossed the state with him, collected cash for him, even moved staff to his headquarters.
"Just by the nature of who she is," says Basil Smikle, a former Hillary Clinton staffer turned political consultant, "she would want to be a stand-up Democrat."
This time, her aides suggest more than partisanship is at play. Lewis says that Clinton and Ferrer "are not new friends," adding, "She has known him for a long time and so is taking a special interest in his candidacy."
Clinton first met Ferrer back in 1992, when the former Bronx borough president embraced her husband, Bill, in his presidential bid. Seven years later, in 1999, he emerged as a key ally for Hillary. At the time, she was the little candidate; he, the big elected official. President Clinton had offered clemency to 16 Puerto Rican freedom fighters, and his wife, in the midst of a campaign swing, objected. She soon found herself in trouble with local Latinos. Many of the city's leaders criticized her stance; some threatened to abandon her.