Why Kirsten Gillibrand isn’t ‘vulnerable’ anymore
On "The Daily Show" last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was trying hard to keep her composure.
"Well, I watched her speech from television," Gillibrand said, when asked how it felt to see Michelle Obama from the convention floor.
"Oh, you don't have passes?" joked Jon Stewart.
Gillibrand giggled for a few seconds, tried to compose herself, lost it, turned away, and laughed for another few seconds, while Stewart smiled and gently patted her hand.
"I will work on that for you," he said. "I will try to get you some passes."
It was a rare glimpse of the old, unpolished Gillibrand, the one who eagerly accepted her appointment to the Senate with such a lengthy, scattered speech that she missed a congratulatory phone call from the president.
That Gillibrand was decried by potential challengers as a "vulnerable" lightweight who had been transformed, in remarkably short order, from a Blue Dog Democrat who was not particularly progressive on immigration or gay rights and bragged about keeping guns under her bed, into a pro-immigrant champion of gay marriage and gun control.
But, for all her putative vulnerability, the serious challengers never came, and she beat an underfunded former congressman, Joe DioGuardi, by 28 points.
By that point, the upstate Gillibrand had been completely overtaken by the proudly liberal statewide version, and would soon be able to boast high-profile victories pushing for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the September 11 health bill, which drew rare, sincere praise from Stewart in her first appearance on "The Daily Show" last January.
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Team Gillibrand's concerted decision from the very beginning to present her as a spokeswoman for young, working women has been key to her success in building a statewide and national profile, keeping out of Chuck Schumer's way while filling a vacuum for such voices. The timing turns out to have been nearly ideal, too: Gillibrand was setting out to make herself heard just as a new, Tea Party-infused Republican Congress was resolving to re-fight old battles on issues like reproductive rights with renewed vigor. The idea that the G.O.P. was actively waging a "war on women," as Gillibrand asserted early on, was not a hard one for her to market.
Gillibrand's ability to raise money, too, has made her a desirable friend for candidates across the country, and a fashionable cause for the likes of Tina Brown and Rupert Murdoch's wife, Wendi.
Gillibrand's Senate opponent this year, Manhattan attorney Wendy Long, has struggled to sell the idea that Gillibrand can be beaten. At last count, Gillibrand had raised $10 million and her approval rating has hovered around 50 percent, while Long was struggling to get her campaign out of the red, and three-quarters of voters have said they don't know enough about her to form an opinion.
Accordingly, the media has treated the 2012 Senate race as an afterthought, and Gillibrand hasn't particularly discouraged them. It's telling, in fact, that when her name has come up, it's frequently been in connection with speculation about who might run for president in 2016.
A recent Washington Post profile of her efforts to raise money for other female candidates closed with a section titled "2016 and Beyond," which wondered if she was building the kinds of friendships that would help with a presidential bid, and noted that she'll only be 49 years old in four years, "much younger than other female Democrats with national ambitions."
Chris Cillizza, a blogger for the Post, parsed her future prospects in the 2016 chapter of his book, "The Gospel According to the Fix," and she merited a brief mention in a New York Times story from Charlotte about the different ways the 2016 field was enjoying the Democratic National Convention.
The local press back home noticed, responding with stories about potential tension between New York's three rumored contenders: Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton, who would be considered heavyweights in any national Democratic field, and Gillibrand.
Gillibrand's only formal appearance at the convention was a silent cameo in an ensemble presentation of women senators on Wednesday night, led by Maryland's Barbara Mikulski.
But it was one of the rare times Gillibrand wasn't speaking somewhere else in Charlotte.
On Tuesday night, after a reception for women senators, she was on PBS' "Newshour" for a discussion about women in politics, alongside California's attorney general, Kamala Harris.
"If we had 51 percent of women in Congress, do you think we'd be debating birth control?" she asked, in a question that she reprises for most of her women-related appearances.
On Wednesday morning, she addressed the New York delegation breakfast, celebrating the state's passage of same-sex marriage, then spent two hours in the afternoon with Ashley Judd and Marie Claire editor Joanne Coles, at a town hall discussion hosted by Emily's List.
She sat for interviews with NY1 and its upstate affiliate YNN, and she drew loud cheers when she was introduced alongside her female colleagues on the convention floor, over a pounding bass beat, as a senator "fighting to make sure we see 'Made In America' again."
That night she was the featured guest on "The Daily Show," and the next morning, she was up early for an interview on "Morning Joe," a show she avoided during her transition to the statewide stage, but where she now enjoys a breezy rapport with co-hosts Mika Brzezinksi and Joe Scarborough.
"We really are seeing extraordinary advocates for what Democrats stand for and why we want to fight for the American people and the middle class," Gillibrand said, taking Brzezinski's side in an argument about the convention's speakers.
"Exactly, Joe," said Brzezinski to her co-host, as the panel of guests laughed.
"Sorry!" Gillibrand said, with an apologetic pat on Scarborough's arm.
But the appearance that generated the most chatter was her speech to the Iowa delegation on Thursday morning, which had generated 2016 chatter even before she gave her speech.
"No," was her response on Wednesday, after her speech to the New York delegation, when asked if she was interested in running for president.
“I am going to be the chairperson of the Hillary Clinton 2016 fan club,” she told the Des Moines Register after her Iowa appearance on Thursday, echoing a line she's been using for months to urge her predecessor toward another run.
Gillibrand was, in some ways, benefiting from the absence of most big-name contenders in Charlotte. Clinton spent the week in East Timor; Joe Biden was busy with his vice presidential duties; and Andrew Cuomo, who had a Gillibrand-like schedule at the convention in 2000, only made a brief cameo for the New York delegation on Thursday morning.
("He'd be a wonderful presidential candidate," Gillibrand said of Cuomo, one of her old political mentors, after her remarks to the New York delegation on Tuesday morning.)
On Sept. 13, a week after the convention, Quinnipiac University released a poll that showed Gillibrand ahead of Long, 64-27, a margin slightly bigger than the one by which Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney among the likely voters in what's expected to be one of the most lopsidedly Democratic states.
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