True or not, it has at least made for interesting buzz. Last week, word spread of another potential Republican challenger for Senator Hillary Clinton in 2006—Antonia Novello, the state’s health commissioner for six years now and a former U.S. surgeon general.
Novello has kept quiet about her intentions, and a call to her office by the Voice was not returned. But GOP leaders confirm she’s mulling over a bid. Ryan Moses, of the state Republican Party, says he’s had exploratory talks with Novello and her people. “She is one of many possible candidates we’re taking a look at.” And state Conservative Party chairman Michael Long met the longtime Republican last month.
“People are evidently encouraging her to look at running against Hillary Clinton,” he says.
This latest possibility is intriguing, because it shows how GOP officials are testing the notion of a female candidate—again. Already, Republicans have tried to encourage Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Pirro to get into the game. Now, they’re entertaining Novello.
Though any number of names are circulating, nobody but Bill Brenner, the long-shot Grahamsville lawyer (see “The Hick Who Wants to Take Hillary Down,” April 20-26), has declared a candidacy to date. (At press time word had it that Manhattan attorney Edward Cox was close to declaring his candidacy.)
Moses wouldn’t say whether the party is actively trying to draft a female candidate. According to GOP insiders, though, the leadership does believe a woman would make a more effective challenger against Clinton. For starters, they want to avoid the disastrous Senate campaign of 2000, when Rick Lazio came off like a brutish browbeater. At a Buffalo debate against Clinton, the Long Island Republican stalked across the stage with a pledge to ban soft-money donations. He waved the paper in her face and demanded, “Sign it!”
“He looked like a bully,” says one prominent GOP consultant. “Everybody thought so, but especially women.” Clinton immediately gained favor among women voters who watched the debate, while Lazio sank. His unfavorable rating nearly doubled among those women, to 53 percent.
A female Republican might also dampen Clinton’s broad popularity among women voters generally. As the latest polls show, 75 percent of all New York women back the senator.
“It’s like the Desperate Housewives thing,” says one GOP source. “It’d be better for us as a party if we could find a female candidate.”
» The state GOP search fits a larger Republican Party strategy. Barnard College professor Kathleen Knight, whose specialty is women in politics, has noticed the party running more and more women against female Democratic incumbents nationwide. The White House, for example, has unsuccessfully tried to recruit a woman to go up against Senator Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, next year.
“Republicans will match the incumbent’s profile closely, yet contrast it enough to appeal to traditionalists,” Knight says. Typically, the races pit a successful, matronly type against a career-oriented intellectual.
Consider Novello, 60, a pediatrician with roots in Puerto Rico. She served as surgeon general in the early 1990s under the first President Bush, lending her a federal pedigree to match Clinton’s. Novello’s biography touts her advocacy on health care and children—the senator’s two signature issues.
“I’m sure Republicans would say, ‘Hillary has gotten here by means of her husband,’ ” Knight notes, “whereas Antonia has worked her way up and earned her positions through merit.”
That’s what we hear from the GOPers hankering to back Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a 2008 presidential bid against Clinton, a likely candidate. Rice, they argue, is a high-achieving woman who’s never had to follow in her husband’s footsteps.
Clinton’s supporters aren’t buying that approach—now or in the future. “Women are proud of Senator Clinton, and we’re not going to say, ‘Oh, now that we have two women in the race, we’ll return to our Republican roots,’ ” argues Pat Schroeder, the former U.S. congresswoman and current president of the Association of American Publishers, which has offices in Manhattan. “It won’t happen.”
Schroeder should know. As the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, in 1972, she watched the GOP field one female candidate after another to try to beat her. “They thought, ‘If we run a woman we won’t have to worry about a man messing up,’ ” she remembers. Like the time a male opponent called her “Little Patsy,” even though she was three inches taller.
“Women appreciated that I was out there talking about issues that other politicians didn’t talk about,” she says, such as family medical leave and equal pay.
In the end, the problem for the New York GOP is finding any candidate, male or female, who can articulate a vision different from Senator Clinton’s. As the Republican consultant puts it, “Voters are thinking the party has offered no alternative. They’re thinking Hillary Clinton looks good.”