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Clinton challengers square off

Viewers of "Good Morning America," "Hardball" and CNN might get the impression of a suddenly hot race in New York State to defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking re-election this fall.

In her first week as a candidate, Kathleen Troia McFarland made the rounds of the talk shows, touting her experience as a Pentagon aide in the Reagan administration and selling herself as the logical Republican alternative to Clinton, a Democrat.

McFarland, who goes by her initials K.T., has been grabbing all this attention even as an unknown challenging the most famous woman in the world, who just so happens to have a 60 percent approval rating in some statewide polls and a $16.7 million advantage in the dash for cash.

McFarland's it-girl status frustrates John Spencer, the former Yonkers mayor who just two weeks ago looked like Clinton's probable GOP opponent.

"As far as all the fanfare goes, it's mystifying," said Spencer, a tough-talking conservative who has been waging a harsh anti-Clinton campaign since June.

Then again, political pros cite what they call obvious reasons why McFarland, a former Pentagon spokeswoman who moved to New York City to marry and raise a family two decades ago, is suddenly a media darling.

She's well-connected. She's pro-choice, which is a plus in a liberal state. She also is a telegenic woman, which might add a little flash to the race that no male former mayor of Yonkers could ever bring.

"People want to see a cat fight, not a real discussion of the issues," said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, who backs Spencer.

So far, though, the fight seems to be between McFarland and Spencer, and it has focused on issues.

Voicing disappointment with the harsh partisan tone of Washington politics, McFarland said homeland security and a strong national defense would be her priorities.

"I think I would be a better senator because I've been a Reagan Republican," she said.

McFarland, nevertheless, appears to have less hawkish views than Spencer on the Iraq War.

Asked if she would have voted to authorize the war in 2002 as Clinton did -- she replied, "I don't know what I would have concluded."

McFarland also said she would not call for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops in Iraq. And even though a recent mosque bombing has prompted fears of a civil war, McFarland said the situation in Iraq "is looking a lot better than it was a year ago."

Spencer, by contrast, insisted that the Iraq invasion was right from the start and calls it part of the war on terror.

"I trust the generals and the president," he said. "The time to leave Iraq is when we complete the mission."

Spencer and McFarland differ on other key issues as well. He's staunchly anti-abortion, while she said: "I'm pro-choice. I believe in a woman's right to choose."

Spencer, meanwhile, noted that the upstate economy will be a key issue in the race. He said that, as a former mayor, he would work with upstate mayors and county executives to do whatever needed to lure jobs to their communities while constantly pushing for lower federal taxes.

McFarland acknowledged the upstate economy's importance and added that small-business growth would be key to the area's revival. But she said she didn't have a prescription for job growth just yet.

"I'm not going to drop all my political manifestos in your lap right now," she said.

To GOP leaders like Robert Davis, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, McFarland doesn't have to show all her cards right away. McFarland's resume and persona make her an instantly credible candidate, he said.

"She's already shown the ability to attract media attention in a way we haven't seen from the Spencer campaign," Davis said.

But Geraldine Ferraro, a two-time Democratic Senate candidate and one-time vice presidential nominee, said McFarland faces long odds.

"This is really a tough race to do without a base of support," Ferraro said. And given the conservative nature of Republican voters, "I doubt that she'll win the primary."

Why, then, would McFarland suddenly have so much star power?

"She's a woman going against Hillary Clinton, and all of a sudden, that's a story," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It makes for a greater drama."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.