In Rudy's Playground

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When Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged last week in her new guise as Senate candidate, she stood in a beautiful pasture, basking in the glow of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for the moment channeling Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm rather than Eleanor Roosevelt. Meanwhile, her likely opponent for Moynihan's seat, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was striding the gritty streets of Manhattan in the middle of New York City's worst blackout since 1977, looking, if not senatorial, like a take-charge Man of the People.

Minutes into a shutdown that plunged 200,000 people in upper Manhattan into darkness, Giuliani was in his Chevy Suburban, shooting up to Washington Heights. Get me the police chief! Get me the fire chief! Get me Con Ed!--and while you're at at it, get me a lawyer! Let's sue those bastards. Out on the beat until 2:30 a.m. and then back at noon, trailing emergency types with walkie-talkies, flashing lights and sirens, the mayor personally eyeballed the intersections to see that the 1,000 extra police officers were at their assigned posts. A small neighborhood parade followed him down Amsterdam Avenue with questions, complaints and surprising good humor. When a brightly colored bird perched on his arm, it seemed as if the circus had come to town.

It was the crisis from Central Casting: exquisitely timed, high profile but manageable, with an identifiable villain--an unsympathetic power utility worthy of the mayor's scolding, warring self. "This isn't a natural disaster. It's a man-made disaster," he barked. Only a dimwit wouldn't realize "that in the summer, it gets hot." He's keeping score: "We had nine arrests last night. In '77 there were 850 fires set, thousands of arrests and over $100 million in damages."

The day went so well, one might have thought Rudy had pulled the plug himself. While Hillary has to play down the trappings of the White House to make it look as though she actually lives in the state she wants to represent, the mayor struts across the most famous stage in the world, starring in one campaign-ready event after another, with a stash of enviable props--search-and-rescue boats, choppers, fire engines and several championship sports teams to cheer for, including the Yankees, whose pinstripes he wore as a kid in Brooklyn. He can even light the lights on Broadway. On Wednesday he quashed his police chief's recommendation that the theaters go dark on Millennium Eve. HIZZONER SEZ: THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

Last week Rudy and Hillary kept their battered, tormented psyches under control, but how long can it be before she lashes out at the vast right-wing conspiracy and he lashes out at everyone else: food vendors he doesn't approve of, uncurbed dog owners, community gardens (sell 'em) and jaywalkers? But so long as his Inner Tyrant is dormant, Rudy is one photo op after another. As Hillary traveled the state "listening," the mayor never sat down or shut up. While she got away with answering a measly eight questions from reporters, Rudy was taking eight a minute at his five press conferences in 16 hours. As she was visiting farmers and suburban moms, he galloped to Queens to play Mr. Crime Fighter, surrounded by New York's finest as he swore in a new class at the police academy.

Rudy is more admired than loved, but he doesn't much care. "It would be nice," he says of being liked, "but it's better to do the right thing, prove the city is manageable, so no one can ever say it isn't again." He's rightly criticized for tolerating police excesses, but with crime down and jobs up, Wall Street gushing and Times Square as clean as Fantasyland, he gets away with it. Because of the Catch-22 of First Ladies, Hillary doesn't have much of a record to tout. She can't take credit for exercising the power she's not supposed to have.

In matters personal, a Rudy-vs.-Hillary race would be heavily influenced by the principle of Mutual Assured Destruction. On Monica, Rudy says, "I'll never mention it." The mayor's marriage is almost as mysterious as Hillary's. In 1996 his wife of 12 years, TV journalist Donna Hanover, reverted to her professional name and virtually stopped appearing publicly with her husband. In a 1997 interview, she wouldn't say whether she voted for him. So rarely are they seen together that a sighting makes headlines, as it did last May when they danced at a wedding at Gracie Mansion.

So far, Rudy has engaged Hillary only at the margins. "I can't discuss what she's for until she says what she's for." He mocked her Yankee fandom by going to a Cubs game in Hillary's hometown. After one of Hillary's people said she wouldn't be vacationing in the Adirondacks because of the flies, Giuliani said he'd heard they had flies in Arkansas too. It was true, he joked, that he had never lived or worked in Arkansas, but it would be "cool" to be its Senator anyway.

Although he is known as a self-absorbed dictator, Giuliani would be only an average blowhard in the Capitol, so I find him more charming than his press clippings. He speaks without a text, makes his own calls, never goes off the record. We stop for lunch, and he puts a $20 bill on the counter, and so do I--one of those postmodern-ethics moments when neither of us can accept the other's hospitality. He gives me half of his deep-dish pizza, having made the better choice. Sure, he's pleased with himself. But unlike a lot of smug pols, at least he has some reason to be.

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