Hugh Had to Be There

He's inexperienced. He's hefty. He's the First Brother-in-Law. And he's coming soon to a ballot near you.

On this windy Tuesday, as Hugh Rodham has been traveling, first to Tallahassee, then to Tampa, to announce his candidacy for the United States Senate, clouds have gathered back in Miami, and not just in the sky. For a good part of the afternoon an answering machine has been taking calls at Rodham's new campaign office on the eleventh floor of a building on West Flagler Street downtown. Finally a campaign worker, Mary Ann Ruffner, picks up the phone. She sounds edgy as she explains that the office has lost contact with the candidate, the younger brother of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The one link to Rodham and his entourage -- the pager belonging to his campaign manager, Michael Copperthite -- is broken. "His beeper's on the blink," Ruffner huffs. "I don't know what is wrong with it." Regaining her composure, she promises that, as planned, Rodham will be in front of the Metro Justice Building for a 5:00 p.m. kick-off rally, adding that it would be best to get there early. "There may be thousands of people," she speculates.

A USAir worker at Miami International Airport is more uncertain if somewhat less concerned than Ruffner about the fate of Rodham and the five people accompanying him, including his Cuban-American wife Maria Arias. "They've just sort of disappeared," yawns Phil, looking at his computer screen. "I can't find them anywhere in the system." Phil confirms that the Senate hopeful was booked on a 2:44 p.m. USAir flight from Tampa that was canceled. An American Airlines flight scheduled to leave at approximately the same time was also scratched. His computer screen doesn't have the capacity to tell him why. "Ah, here they are," Phil says with slightly more enthusiasm, "on a flight departing Tampa at 3:30. At least they had a reservation...but this time they canceled. Now why would they do that? How strange."

At the Metro Justice Building on NW Twelfth Street, the crowd, which numbers about 70, doesn't appear too worried that Rodham is twenty minutes late. Most are more concerned with shouting at each other over the din of the gusting wind. The conversation is mostly in Spanish; many of those gathered are Cuban-American friends of the candidate's wife. "I have known Maria for many years," says Nina Ruiz. "Her husband is a good man and a good friend of a free Cuba, so I came here to show my support. He has a difficult job ahead of him."

He certainly does. Recent newspaper and television reports about Rodham have ridiculed his bid to win the Democratic nomination to oppose incumbent Republican Connie Mack. They have painted Rodham as an extended-First Family fool rushing in where even the most seasoned Democratic politicians fear to tread A namely on Mack, who has plenty of money and the state's Republican machinery behind him. Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, on the other hand, has spent the past fourteen years working in the Dade Public Defender's Office, first as an investigator, then as an assistant public defender. His political experience, as Republicans have so gleefully pointed out in recent days, is limited to registering to vote just before running as a delegate to the 1991 state Democratic convention, where his brother-in-law was seeking a straw poll victory.

Even the kindest commentators have noted that if Rodham were to be considered a political heavyweight, it would be due to his weight. Quoted in a February 17 New York Times article about the candidate, Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald's political editor, said Rodham reminded him of Norm on Cheers. He told Times reporter Maureen Dowd that the First Lady's brother might have a chance in the Senate race if he "could run this whole campaign sitting on a bar stool, having a beer" and talking to people one at a time. At the campaign rally this day, Fiedler finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to criticize a fellow reporter for taking his "Norm" quote out of context. "It was pretty mild in the context in which I said it," he explains, smiling uncomfortably as he hunches against the wind within earshot of one of Rodham's campaign workers. "In the context [Dowd] used it, it was more cutting." Dowd herself was far less considerate, mentioning Rodham's "straining shirt buttons" and efforts to get the candidate "fixed up with some statewide health club memberships."

Rodham has also been bitten by the Republican refrain that he is a windmill-assault specialist armed only with his family name. That criticism doesn't seem to bother the Reverend W. Bernard Kelly, president of the Carol City Democratic Club, who says that "as a realist," he has no problem with Rodham's relying on his family connections. "Hey, this man eats with the president," Kelly stresses, evidently unaware of the hazards involved in any reference to gulping down food. "Come on -- you can't do much better than that. I mean, he's a fighter for the people and all that, but realism is realism. Connections are connections."

Kelly is interrupted by someone shouting, "There they are!" The small throng rustles, necks craning to catch a glimpse of Rodham, who, having chartered a plane, is only 40 minutes late.

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