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An unlikely political bouquet for Clinton GOP rival for Senate seat, in debate, says she would be 'tremendous' presidential candidate

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Republican re-election rival said Sunday in a debate that the former first lady would make a "tremendous candidate" for president, while Clinton again said she has not yet decided whether to make such a race.

"Sen. Clinton would make a tremendous candidate for president of the United States, but not at the expense of New Yorkers," said John Spencer, the former Yonkers mayor who is making a long-shot bid against the Democratic senator.

Spencer later backtracked, saying: "Many people could be excellent candidates. I'm not endorsing her, obviously."

As for Clinton, she again refused to vow to serve out her six-year term if re-elected.

"I am going to continue to work as hard I can representing the people of New York," she said. "But I'm also going to be very clear that I can't make a decision now. . . . If that concerns any voter, they should factor that into the vote they make."

The debate at WABC-TV -- which was sponsored by the television station, The Buffalo News and Univision -- was unusually civil, given that the election is two weeks from Tuesday.

Spencer criticized voters who hate Clinton, saying: " 'Hate' is not a good word. I like Hillary Clinton."

And Clinton replied graciously to a question about the recent comments of Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential hopeful and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who said she had a happier life than the New York senator.

"I respect the choices that other people, particularly other women, make in their lives, and the choices that I've made have been right for me," she said.

Spencer and Clinton did have sharp disagreements.

Asked about the Iraq War, Spencer said: "We must get Iraq stabilized. If we do not achieve that, these no doubt we will have massive problems for future generations of Americans."

However, Spencer offered no specifics about his approach to U.S. policy in Iraq.

Clinton said the U.S. should pressure Iraqi leaders to resolve their differences, involve Iraq's neighbors in stabilizing the country and begin a phased redeployment of American troops as Iraqi forces take charge of security. The senator also again refused to repudiate her 2003 vote to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

"I'm not one who believes in do-overs in life," she said. "I made the best judgment that I could make at the time."

The two candidates offered sharply divergent views on Clinton's 2000 campaign promise to create 200,000 upstate jobs. Congress approved only slivers of Clinton's upstate legislative package, and the region has continued to shed jobs in the last six years.

Spencer said that has happened in part because Clinton did not really work hard on the issue. He said she spent her time "running for president" while adhering to fiscal policies that could only hurt the region.

"You're not going to create 200,000 jobs when you have a core philosophy of tax, tax, tax," Spencer said.

Clinton countered by saying she hoped she would have a Democratic Congress to work with to pass her upstate-boosting ideas, such as expanding broadband access and enacting targeted tax cuts. She also noted that after her legislation faded, "I've kept working at this," creating public-private partnerships to grow jobs and help farmers and focusing funds on projects such as Buffalo's bioinformatics center.

Spencer concluded by urging voters to go to his Web site. "Check out my background," he said, "because no one seems to know me."

That's not a problem Clinton shares. After the debate, she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were greeted by a throng of cheering supporters.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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