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The Woman with the Right Stuff

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Rev. Al Sharpton says she must have "mystical powers" -- or the best luck anyone has ever seen.

But if you ask me, there's nothing mystical about it. As for luck, if Kirsten Gillibrand has proved one thing during her brief tenure in the United States Senate, it is that you make your luck.

The woman whose selection to replace Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate last year brought mostly questions -- as in "Who's that?" -- is now the far and away frontrunner to win that seat in her own right come November. One after another, big shots and better known would-be candidates have looked at the race, some very publicly, before deciding not to run.

New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, advised by ace political adviser Joe Trippi, declined, much to Trippi's publicly stated dismay. He told The New York Times that he thought Maloney could win. Obviously, she didn't agree.

Former Tennessee congressman and Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., urged on by his new colleagues on Wall Street, conducted a much-publicized listening tour before heading back to Wall Street.

Billionaire publisher Mort Zuckerman and former Bush adviser Dan Senor both considered entering the race. Senor was serious enough that there were repeated stories in the press about how his candidacy might affect his anchorwoman wife, Campbell Brown. Both eventually said no.

What is it about Kirsten Gillibrand?

The obvious answers don't quite explain it. Sure, she has powerful allies, including New York's senior Sen. Chuck Schumer and President Barack Obama. But at a time when most people view Washington as the swamp it once was, powerful friends in D.C. are as much a target as they are a strength.

Sure, she has a base in upstate New York. But if you can name the last New York senator who called upstate home, you have a much better memory than I do.

Sure, she has $5.1 million in her campaign account. But frankly, New York is full of wealthy men and women who, if they wanted to run for Senate, could write a check to their campaigns for many times that and not miss a beat.

So what could it be?

For all the talk about the burdens of running for office -- the loss of privacy, the incivility, the sheer nastiness of the game -- Senate seats in big states rarely go wanting. Senators from New York get a lot of attention, which is almost surely one of the reasons the job looked so attractive to Hillary Clinton. And as Schumer demonstrated for years, the easy commute means you don't even have to uproot your family. No, it's not that the job has suddenly become unattractive. If it had, you wouldn't see so many big shots studying it, considering it, publicly weighing an entry into the race.

The answer seems obvious to me. The reason everyone from Maloney to Senor to Ford to Zuckerman to former New York Gov. George Pataki has decided to just say no is because they know something that anyone who pays close attention to Gillibrand learns very quickly: This woman is a winner.

She is everything a senator should be: smart, honest, capable and competent. She works as hard as any politician I've ever seen -- and most of them don't have two small children. She does her homework, knows how to work across the aisle, picks her fights and stands her ground. She listens. She is only going to get better. In short, she has the right stuff.

The reason she has only token opposition is because the big names who might have entered the race know that whatever her numbers are today -- many in New York still don't know much about her or know her at all -- by Election Day, voters will know her and like her. As my mother used to say, what's not to like? She is a woman with the right stuff, and the fact that she has a strong and loyal group of women supporting her is no more than a reflection of just that.

Mark my words: Kirsten Gillibrand is a woman to watch, not only in November, but in the years ahead.

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