WASHINGTON -- Some Democrats are urging Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for the Senate from New York in 2000, and the first lady is not ruling out the idea. Friends are quietly circulating her name as a possible candidate.
Still, her closest aides and confidants say Mrs. Clinton is not actively considering the Senate bid -- at least not yet. It is one of many options on the table, one that is as likely to be discarded as explored, they say."She's aware that people are speculating about what she might do in 2000, but at this point she has no plans to run for elective office," said spokeswoman Marsha Berry. "For the next two years, she wants to make the most out of being first lady. I'm not in the position to rule it out. I'm just telling you I can't tell you."
Speculation about a Hillary-for-Senate campaign intensified when Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., told NBC on Sunday that he wouldn't be surprised if Mrs. Clinton ran for the seat long held by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is not seeking re-election.
Torricelli's spokeswoman, Joy Howell, said her boss doesn't know what Mrs. Clinton will do. As chairman of the Senate campaign committee, Torricelli is just trying to recruit a good candidate, Howell said.
White House officials say Torricelli was acting on his own, not on Mrs. Clinton's behalf. They say he has repeatedly urged her to run, mostly through intermediaries.
Judith Hope, chairwoman of the New York Democratic Party, said Mrs. Clinton asked her several months ago not to encourage speculation about a Senate bid.
"I would be surprised if this is what she chose to do," said Hope.
Yet several confidants of Mrs. Clinton, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is something to the rumors.
One close friend said this week that she has talked to the first lady about possibly running for the Senate seat. The conversations were casual and not substantial, but Mrs. Clinton knows friends are circulating her name, the source said.
A leading Democratic official in New York said allies of Mrs. Clinton have discussed a possible bid with state leaders. It doesn't appear to be an organized, aggressive operation, but the whisper campaign helped sparked the recent spate of rumors, the official said.
An administration official close to the Clintons said the first lady won't rule out a campaign because she can't give it serious consideration until after the Monica Lewinsky controversy subsides. After that, she likely will take a look at it, though the official anticipated that Mrs. Clinton won't run.
That assessment was echoed by several others close to the first lady, who say no polling or organizing has begun.
Friends say Mrs. Clinton has several political options opened to her, including seeking Senate seats in Illinois or California and even a presidential race somewhere down the line. Given the family's massive legal debt, they say, she may instead join corporate boards, return to practicing law or write a book to make serious money.
She has never been a hotter political commodity.
With the scandal-ridden president a liability to most campaigns, Mrs. Clinton was a big draw in the 1998 midterm elections and addressed fawning New York audiences. Polls show her national approval rating is higher than ever, rising on a tide of sympathy during the Lewinsky inquiry.
Mrs. Clinton is not the only potential New York Senate candidate with White House ties.
Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, the son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, will soon decide whether to run. If Cuomo sought the seat, Mrs. Clinton would be unlikely to challenge him, say allies of both. If he bows out, speculation about a first lady candidacy would skyrocket.
Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, is no longer giving the race a serious look.
John Marino, former New York party chairman, would love to see Mrs. Clinton run but said she must decide quickly. Other potential Democratic candidates need a heads up, he said, and she can't wait much longer to start raising money.
Residency wouldn't be a problem. Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said she would have until Election Day to rent or buy in New York. And Robert Kennedy was a latecomer to New York when he won a Senate seat in 1964.
Getting elected would be tougher. Party leaders say New Yorkers wouldn't be dazzled by the "first lady" title. The state media would be typically hard-knuckled. And no politicians, Democratic or Republican, would pull their punches.
Said Bill Cunningham, a Moynihan adviser: "I don't know if everybody will put their ambitions on hold just because the first lady wants to become senator."