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Lessons for Mrs. Clinton from 1964

By Frank Buckley/CNN

June 15, 1999
Web posted at: 11:33 a.m. EDT (1533 GMT)

NEW YORK (June 15) -- Robert Kennedy was met with pandemonium at Grand Central Station during his campaign for the Senate in 1964. It was the kind of scene he would encounter throughout his campaign just a year after his brother's assassination.

"Everywhere he went, there were enormous crowds and people reaching out to touch him. It was a desperate need to identify with him," said William vanden Heuvel, who was Kennedy's deputy campaign manager.

Dick Ottinger was a friend of Kennedy's who was running for House seat that year and occasionally campaigned with him. He called Kennedy's bid for the Senate an "extraordinary phenomenon."

"He engendered on the one hand, tremendous excitement, on the other hand, a very active opposition," Ottinger said.

Opponents labeled Kennedy, who hailed from Massachusetts, a carpetbagger. It was an issue that would dog him on the campaign trail but one he confronted head on.

In a televised town meeting, paid for by the Democrats, it was the first issue he addressed after an audience member posed a question that asked why he chose to run in New York and not another state. He began his answer by noting he spent some formative years in the state and went on further to explain his choice.

"If the senator of the state of New York is going be selected on who's lived here the longest, then I think people are going vote for my opponent," he said. "If it's going be selected on who's got the best New York accent, then I think I'm probably out too. But I think if it's going be selected on the basis of who can make the best United States senator, I think I'm still in the contest."

Kennedy would win the election by a wide margin. He defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Kenneth Keating, who could never make the carpetbagger issue stick.

"It isn't an issue that voters end up voting on. It is the issue that is the collective basket for all of the charges against the candidate," vanden Heuvel said.

That could be a lesson for first lady Hillary Clinton if she runs or for her Republican opponent, which could be New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is contemplating a run.

Ottinger knows how the carpetbagger issue affects a race. He used the issue in a later Senate race against James Buckley of Connecticut. Buckley beat Ottinger for the New York Senate seat despite Ottinger's attempts to label Buckley an outsider.

"I raised it because I thought it would matter and I don't think it did matter," Ottinger said.

Both Ottinger and vanden Heuvel say in the end, voters pull the lever based on the issues and confidence in the candidate.

And in Kennedy's case, it helped that he was a national figure like Mrs. Clinton.

"Other issues become dominant.The carpetbagger issue is the beginning of a campaign. It's never the end of a campaign," vanden Heuvel said.

Republicans are already making it an issue for Mrs. Clinton. However, history suggests that carpetbaggers are welcome in New York, given Kennedy and Buckley's elections.

And one other senator has been from outside the Empire State. Rufus King, New York's first senator, elected in 1789, was originally from Massachusetts.


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Lazio courts conservatives; New report of Hillary's house hunt (6-7-99)

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviews first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (5-14-99) video
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