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CLINTON CONFRONTS QUESTIONS ON PARDON

Try as she might to concentrate on the upstate economy and national tax policy, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton couldn't steer clear Friday of controversies generated by her husband's final hours in the White House.

Peppered by media inquiries about the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and Rich's former wife's contributions to her own campaign, Clinton struggled during a morning news conference in her new Guaranty Building office to stay on her message of reviving upstate New York's flagging economy.

But by the time she addressed a luncheon meeting of the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce, she had maneuvered back to promises of targeted upstate assistance in her first piece of legislation to be introduced next week.

Still, she first had to clear up that matter of the Clintons and Riches, and despite an initial resolve to just not answer those questions, she finally relented.

"I wasn't involved in any of it," she said of the pardons. "Those were decisions made by the president. But it's categorically untrue (that they were connected to political contributions)."

Clinton's initial days as the junior senator from New York have been dominated by the storm clouds surrounding the Rich pardon and other controversies about gifts received by the departing first couple. Although most of the attention has focused on former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Clinton has become involved because Rich's ex-wife, Denise, was a major contributor to her Senate campaign.

In fact, a new Siena College Research Institute poll shows Sen. Clinton's overall approval rating at only 39 percent among New York voters, compared with a robust 57 percent for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, her Democratic colleague.

"New Yorkers don't seem to be offering her much in the way of a honeymoon period," said Thomas Kelly, a Siena professor and co-director of the poll. "I think her standings are being hurt by the pardons and the controversies surrounding the gifts the Clintons received as they left Washington."

But the senator said she was unconcerned
about such surveys, attempting to focus instead on opposing President Bush's plans for substantial tax cuts.

"I've been through a lot of ups and downs over the last eight years," she said. "At the end of the day, what really matters is what you actually do, not what somebody said you did or didn't do. I trust the people of New York to make their own judgments."

And she said she has refused to let the controversy, which now includes a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, dampen her enthusiasm.

"I'm having a great time; I feel like we're off to a good start," she said. "I feel very positive; very optimistic."

The senator carried that enthusiasm with her to the Days Inn in Niagara Falls, where she translated several familiar campaign themes into forecasts of legislation. She promised that when Congress reconvenes next week, her first bill will contain her prescription for curing some of the upstate region's economic ills.

That plan will depend, she said, on using part of the federal surplus to invest in "targeted" economic assistance. She blasted the Bush administration tax cut proposal, hinting that too great a reduction would prevent the kind of investment programs she envisions.

"I believe we have to continue fiscal responsibility in order to have the best chance for prosperity to come to Western New York," she told her Falls audience. "I cannot support President Bush's tax cut because I think it is irresponsible. I do support tax cuts if they are smart and responsible."

She also reiterated her campaign plans for "tech bonds" that provide federal tax credits for investments in Internet infrastructure that generate jobs. That especially would help small and medium-size businesses, she said, in areas underserved by the Internet.

The senator started her day by thanking African-American leaders for their overwhelming support in her recent election, then getting an earful from them about their needs and concerns.

In a free-wheeling breakfast discussion during which Clinton reportedly listened almost as much as she spoke, about 60 local black leaders in St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street filled Clinton's ears about their most-pressing issues.

In addition to the usual staples -- health care, education and business creation -- the African-American leaders also talked about more pointed topics and local concerns, including creation of an East Side supermarket and beefing up youth programs to help curb youth violence.

The session was closed to the public and media, but people leaving the breakfast meeting all echoed the same point: The new senator was there to listen to their needs.

Crystal D. Peoples, majority leader of the Erie County Legislature, summed up the senator's basic message: "I'm here to work for you. What is it that you need?"

The new senator left the double message that she's willing to work with the African-American community and that she has a deep concern for Western New York, State Sen. Byron W. Brown said.

"It reinforced the sense that I had before, of someone who's very bright, very well-organized, very focused on results and very inclusive," Brown said outside the church.

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