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Rodham road to Senate is a long uphill hike

What has possessed Hugh Rodham to run for the U.S. Senate?

Here's a man who wasn't even registered to vote until 1991. He has no political experience, no organization, no money and only eight months until he hopes to defeat a popular incumbent U.S. senator, Republican Connie Mack.

All Rodham has is a sister named Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When Rodham, 43, finally announced his candidacy Tuesday, he defended his new interest in politics and confirmed that he never voted until his brother-in-law ran for president.

"I exercised my right not to (vote)," Rodham said in Tampa. "That's what makes this country a great place to live."

He said people can vote on Election Day, or they can live their democratic ideals, which he did as a public defender in Miami the past 13 years.

He didn't vote because he was "disenchanted with the system at large." The candidacies of Democrats Tom Harkin, Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton in the '92 presidential race finally made voting seem worthwhile, he said.

"When I saw that it wasn't going to be business as usual, that change was imminent, it excited me, it caused me to do what I felt necessary to re-participate in the American democracy."

Rodham might turn out to be one of those refreshing candidates who comes out of nowhere and captures the minds of the voters. His friends speak of his brains, ideas and integrity.

But Floridians this year are tough and angry. Look at Rodham's obstacles:

NAME: Whether people love or hate Hillary Clinton, the name Rodham is likely to be synonymous with liberal unless the candidate can prove otherwise.

Remember that George Bush carried Florida in 1992. This is a conservative state that is growing more Republican by the day.

JOB: Rodham has spent his career defending Miami criminals who were too poor to hire a lawyer. In Drug Court, he sent addicts to treatment instead of jail. The court has a good success rate, but we'll see whether his work is perceived as fighting crime or coddling criminals.

MONEY: Connie Mack has $2.1-million in the bank, and Rodham is starting from zero. Big-name Democratic fund-raisers have already given money to Mack. Mack likes to say he has bipartisan appeal, but those Democrats are buying access to power. It's one of many reasons why incumbents are rarely defeated.

Then there's Democrat Ellis Rubin, the flamboyant Miami lawyer who also might run for the Senate. He has more money than God, doesn't need and won't take contributions.

MACK: The perennial nice guy. He avoids controversy and scandal, occasionally speaks for the Republicans on TV and gives great constituent service.

Rodham plans to attack Mack for his stands against gun control and Clinton's health care plan. This will hurt Mack? C'mon, this is Florida! Guns are on our Christmas lists. And if the AARP won't endorse Clinton's health plan, what more do we need to know?

PRESS: Rodham is skittish of if not hostile to the press, and a campaign can't survive without it.

His campaign manager already told a New York Times reporter to go hang herself. His press secretary won't take calls during Star Trek. Are they really prepared for the sacrifices of a campaign?

The first time I tried to talk to Rodham, I caught up with him during the state Democratic convention in October to ask if the rumors were true that he might run for Senate. I smiled. I introduced myself. Rodham's brother, Tony, shoved me away with his forearms and elbows.

During Rodham's news conference Tuesday in Tallahassee, someone with the Rodham campaign grabbed and shoved Betty Parker of the Fort Myers News Press, demanding to see ID and trying to wrestle documents out of her hand.

Is that how Rodham would deal with opponents in the Senate?

These guys have a lot to learn, and apparently they're not getting help from the obvious source.

By Rodham's account, the White House is lukewarm to his candidacy. Clinton said it's "not a horrible idea." Hillary hasn't promised to campaign for her brother.

The Republicans will try to make Rodham's candidacy a referendum on the Clinton presidency, but Clinton can easily inoculate himself. If Rodham wins, it will be a stunning victory for the Democrats; if he loses, well, it was always a long shot.

The greater risk is that Rodham will make a fool of himself and the family. Naivete and opportunism are a dangerous combination in politics.