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New York Republicans Attack Each Other For Chance to Take on Clinton

The Clintons are no strangers to political soap opera, yet all the drama in New York revolves around the Republicans.

Accusations of bigamy and child abuse, illegitimate children and a tabloid description of one candidate curled in the fetal position after downing half a pint of ice cream sound like top-rated, daytime fiction.

Instead, it's the GOP Senate primary between a former Yonkers mayor, John Spencer, and a Reagan-era Pentagon official, Kathleen Troia "KT" McFarland.

On top of a vivid clash of ideologies and social class, the two have given New Yorkers more than the usual amount of political theater.

Above all the drama is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is spending most of her time on Senate business and laying the groundwork for a possible 2008 presidential run. The Democrat has more than $19 million in the bank and a comfortable, double-digit lead over the underfunded Spencer and McFarland in statewide polls.

With the state's GOP standard-bearer, Gov. George Pataki, stepping down this year, Republicans have struggled to identify promising candidates for statewide office.

Pataki's handpicked choice to challenge Clinton, former Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, was forced to abandon the race after an embarrassing set of missteps and is running for attorney general instead.

Still, GOP operative Nelson Warfield said the Spencer-McFarland spectacle doesn't necessarily indicate a full-bore Republican collapse in the state.

"Primaries are often ugly and unusual contests," Warfield said. "The ultimate test is in November, and we'll know for sure how strong the party is then."

Spencer, 59, a tough-talking conservative, was elected mayor of Yonkers in 1996 and served two terms. He attracted controversy as mayor when he fathered two children with his chief of staff while still married to his first wife. He has since divorced that wife and married the staffer.

McFarland, 54, has lived for 20 years in a Park Avenue duplex with her husband, an investment banker. She has been criticized for telling a campaign audience that Clinton had sent helicopters to spy on her. She claimed she was joking, but the remark seemed more bizarre than funny. Tabloid newspapers began calling her "Kooky KT."

McFarland told a columnist last week that the helicopter hubbub nearly did her in.

"I sat in a ratty old robe, tears spilling down my face," McFarland told the New York Post's Cindy Adams. "I killed off half a pint of ice cream. Next morning I was in a fetal position."

Throughout the campaign, Spencer has derided McFarland as a "liberal elitist" and mocked her upper-crust pedigree. McFarland has relied on her pugilistic strategist, veteran operative Ed Rollins, to respond in kind.

In a recent New York magazine article, Rollins appeared to scoff at Spencer's service in the Vietnam War.

"There were so many guys getting killed in Vietnam that it wasn't so difficult (for Spencer to be made first lieutenant) and it wasn't so difficult to get a Bronze Star," Rollins was quoted as saying. He later claimed the magazine misquoted him.

Earlier in the campaign, Rollins trashed the candidate's unconventional marital history.

"He runs around saying 'I'm a good Catholic.' ... That's bigamy where I come from," Rollins said in a television interview. He also called Spencer's children with his former aide "illegitimate."

This week, McFarland's campaign was roiled by controversy after she went public with allegations that she had been beaten and whipped as a child by her father.

She made the disclosure after New York magazine published excerpts of a letter she sent to her parents in 1992, in which she said her father's abusive behavior had driven her gay brother into a sexually reckless lifestyle that led to his death from AIDS.

"This was the single most intimate thing I'd ever written in my life," McFarland said in an interview with The Associated Press, apparently mystified that the campaign had stripped her of so much privacy.

Her father, Augie Troia, denied McFarland's allegations after a New York Post reporter visited his Wisconsin home.

"You know darn well I never did any of that," Troia, 80, said in Friday's New York Post.

For her part, Clinton has had nothing to say about the Spencer-McFarland melodrama.

"My job is not to be a political commentator," she said.