We are Manhattan-bound on a shuttle destined to spend as much time on the tarmac as in the air when I ask my seat mate what she thinks of the Senate race.
The New Yorker, a former nurse and biotech consultant, instantly begins talking about Hillary. Well, she says, there is the carpetbagger thing. There is the Clinton fatigue thing. There is the first lady as candidate thing. There is the why-didn't-she-leave-the-creep thing.
Somewhere over Connecticut this young woman acknowledges that she agrees pretty much with Hillary on the issues. But right now, she wouldn't vote for her.
All this is laid out in elaborate detail with little animus. She knows the Hillary Story by heart and has passed judgment on its namesake. But as we land in LaGuardia it occurs to me that her narrative is missing something. Or someone. She didn't even mention Rudy Giuliani.
Over the next two days, I have a series of conversations with some men and more women who answer my deliberately open-ended question about ``the Senate race'' by talking about Hillary. And only Hillary.
Finally, it becomes obvious that the race in New York isn't a race at all. It's a referendum: up or down on Hillary.
The relentless Hillary versus Hillary focus of this campaign was, in some ways, predictable. The latest polls here say that Giuliani and Clinton are just about even. But she has lost ground with women. The mayor leads the first lady among white women by an astonishing 51 percent to 37 percent.
Many women in public life have experienced the special scrutiny of their own sex. But it's nothing compared to the attention on Hillary. The same women who resent being held up to a strict and narrow female standard are sometimes the harshest judges of each other's deviations and flaws from that standard. Since 1992, every move she makes, every cookie she bakes, every hair she cuts and Monica she endures, has been watched as if she were Everywoman.
She's no passive victim in this. I confess to a serious case of disappointed expectations. And a case of Clinton fatigue. I thought she was nuts to get into this campaign.
But Hillary has become a psychodrama out of all proportion to the psyche. And she's become the psychological target out of proportion to political reality, let alone mayoralty.
Peggy Noonan got one thing right in ``The Case Against Hillary Clinton,'' the latest of the books by women who seem obsessed with the first lady: ``She comes to symbolize things for people, as if she stands for certain facts in their lives.''
What she symbolizes for Noonan - a Reagan speechwriter and conservative chick before the term was invented - is the high school goody-goody who ratted on the girls smoking in the locker room. The poster girl for Ronald Reagan fancies herself the working-class defender against the lady who had it too easy!
But Noonan's screed is not just the ``polemic'' she acknowledges, and not just the hasty clip job pasted together with flights of fantasy and vitriol that make Gail Sheehy's book, ``Hillary's Choice,'' look like an academic treatise. It's an overt rallying cry to New Yorkers to fight the barbarian at the gate:
``If all good New Yorkers gather together to resist - all good liberals and moderates and conservatives - we can of course beat Clintonism back and end it, decisively. We can stop it here, in the battle of New York.''
But in this declaration of war against Hillary the Hun, somebody is still AWOL. That's right, Rudy. He is absent from Noonan's book. In fact, with a library of Hillary hardbacks, there's only one on Rudy: a children's book.
Now I hesitate to offer a tip to New Yorkers who are loath to listen to out-of-towners. But here goes. Memo to the Big Apple: Hillary is not running against herself or against Ronald Reagan or Erin Brockovich or even Peggy Noonan.
She's running against Guiliani. You stop her, you get him. You get the intemperate, prosecutorial man who managed to cast blame on yet another unarmed black man, Patrick Dorismond, shot dead by an undercover policeman. You get him in the U.S. Senate.
I know, I know. New Yorkers insist that he's made the streets safer. New Yorkers, who are nothing if not parochial, seem to have no idea that other cities and other mayors have made their streets safer without encouraging police to regard every black person as a perpetrator.
It's still seven months before the election. The local conversation and the national media swirl around the first lady. But unless and until her campaign turns attention on the mayor, it's going to remain Hillary versus Hillary.
That's what they call ``no contest.''
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.
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