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Throngs 'listen' with the first lady

In Day One on campaign trail, Hillary Clinton survives trick questions, media horde

At the only traffic light within miles of this country intersection, Katherine Engert is holding a "Go-Home" sign for Hillary Rodham Clinton. As a long black limousine slides past, Ms. Engert and others around her start waving their signs in the hope Mrs. Clinton will get the message.

But she is not in the stretch limo: The occupants are, of all people, members of a Japanese television crew.

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Yes, Japanese television crews, not to mention 250 other journalists, gathered Wednesday in a hayfield to watch Clinton start her "listening tour," a prelude to her formal candidacy to run for a US Senate seat in New York State.

Only a few days earlier, bales of hay had been rolled and shrink-wrapped outside of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's farm, where Clinton kicked off her tour. Now, the field is sprouting trucks with satellite antenna. White House reporter Andrea Mitchell from "NBC News" is soiling her shoes along with local reporters from "Inside Albany."

This spectacle of both celebrity and local reporters comes during a slow news week in Washington. The media horde has come to a place so small - it's not even a dot on local maps - to get the ultimate sound bite as a first lady finally embarks on a campaign trail for herself.

"Will someone come down here and turn me on?" Clinton says after her microphone failed during her first listening session.

"She's such a character," says Osmau Sorimachi of Japan's Fuji television network. "In Japan, there are not so many women - none - who are so ambitious."

That ambition has nearly every political reporter in the nation salivating. They are analyzing, looking for nuance, trying to trip Clinton before she even leaves the gate. They need to find something to write about, after all.

Does she have an opinion on the design of the Peace Bridge at Niagara Falls? asks one local reporter, knowing the candidate would rather talk about Medicare reform and changing the education system. "I'll leave that to the experts," Clinton says as Sen. Moynihan quickly moves to another reporter at a first-day press conference.

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In fact, at the end of the day many reporters were left scratching their heads, looking for a second-day news story. Would it be Mrs. Clinton's visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? Would she wear an Oneonta Tigers baseball cap? How would she care to rate the barbecued chicken at Brook's House of Bar-B-Q in Oneonta?

Judith Hope, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, is expecting that national reporters contemplating such dramatic journalistic coups will feel compelled to go back to Washington. There will be no battle with Andrea Mitchell or Barbara Walters for air time. "As she keeps coming back, local reporters will get all the access they want," she says.

What they are likely to hear is more of the same. At this stage in her campaign, Clinton is taking the high road. On Day One, she said she was contemplating the run because "I care deeply about the issues that are important in this state."

When reporters tried to get her to talk about White House scandals, Monica Lewinisky, or some questionable dealings in her Arkansas past, she talked about education and health care. Didn't she have chutzpah to run in a state where she's never lived? asked one reporter. Yes, laughed Clinton, the word had entered her head when people first suggested she run for the seat.

During the afternoon of Clinton's first day on the trail, she held her first listening session at the State University at Oneonta. Clinton asked five local residents to talk about the education system and how it could be improved.

It was the perfect forum for the first lady, who can talk about educational theory with almost anyone. She supports pre-kindergarten classes, mothers reading to children, and families eating together around the kitchen table.

By the time Clinton gets around to telling the locals she is "serious about listening and learning about upstate New York," many of the reporters have left. As many people are yawning, Clinton says she is looking forward to the "slow relaxed pace."

By the next morning Clinton is in Cooperstown talking about another of her favorite topics-health care. Then she goes to Utica for a session on technology. Then on to Syracuse for an economic development panel. "There are no stump speeches, just listening," says Clinton's spokesman Howard Wolfson.

The farmlands of upstate New York are Republican strongholds. So, it's not surprising that almost everywhere Clinton goes there are protesters. But, she seems unfazed by the activity. When she actually does go by Ms. Engert at the intersection, she sees the Rudy signs. She waves and smiles. This is also part of the listening and learning tour.

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