WASHINGTON - Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said her campaign will leave nothing to chance as she seeks to win her own six-year term in the Senate.
Though Republican contender Wendy Long is little known and has little money, Gillibrand has crisscrossed the state while running five TV ads in the past month as part of an $8 million reservation of air time.
Gillibrand campaigns on creating jobs, helping the middle class and advocating for those she calls the "voiceless" as she seeks to emerge from the shadow of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose Senate term she's been finishing for the past four years.
"My record is really about making sure there is a voice for the voiceless, to make sure those that don't have advocacy groups are heard. And oftentimes that's women, it's minorities, it's LGBT Americans," Gillibrand said, naming key Democratic constituencies.
This year, she also has stepped up her role encouraging women to run for office, donating and raising more than $1 million for other candidates, the vast majority of them female.
"I want to make sure that the women's voice is heard in the electoral process and to change the fact that we only have 17 percent women in Congress," she said. "That's not enough."
Leading the polls
With the election just nine days away, polls show her goal to be re-elected appears to be within her grasp.
A Marist Poll released late Wednesday showed her leading Long 68 percent to 24 percent, and a Siena Poll released Friday showed Gillibrand up 67 percent to 24 percent.
"Gillibrand is the luckiest politician in New York," said political strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
Not only did she get her seat through an appointment by Gov. David A. Paterson in 2009, but she has faced back-to-back challengers with little money or name recognition, he said.
A victory on Nov. 6 would make her a senator in her own right, ending the permanent campaign she has had to wage in the past six years.
And it would give her time to figure out "who she is" as a lawmaker after her much-criticized shift to the left when she moved to the Senate, Sheinkopf said.
She'd also have time to build relationships. Already, Gillibrand has been able to "create a lot of power" for herself by giving money to other candidates, he said. "You benefit by helping others who believe like you do," he said.
Voters face stark choice
The race between Gillibrand and Long has been low key but really represents a stark choice.
In their only debate on Oct. 17 -- Gillibrand refused more -- they disagreed along party lines on taxes, spending and the role of government, and especially how to create jobs.
Gillibrand touts her record of helping pass the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians, and the STOCK Act banning lawmakers from trading on nonpublic inside information.
Long, who calls the war on women claim "phony," asked why Gillibrand hasn't demanded Speaker Sheldon Silver resign for secretly paying off victims of a state legislator's sexual harassment.
Gillibrand, caught between her women's agenda and her party, said she's waiting for results of an investigation.
Long said Gillibrand "stands for nothing, except for advancing her own career" and crusading for women is just "to distract attention from her terrible record on jobs."
"I stand for the middle class," Gillibrand responded, adding, "My values have never changed."
Gillibrand grew up in a powerful Albany political family, but said she didn't get involved in politics until she was a Manhattan attorney in the 1990s.
Her grandmother was Democratic icon Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, a confidante of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning II. Her father, lobbyist Douglas Rutnik, has close ties to powerful Republicans Alfonse D'Amato and George Pataki.
'Friends on both sides of the aisle'
Gillibrand grew up in the era of Albany political machines that was less about philosophy and more about loyalty, said State Assemb. Jack McEneny, a family friend who's retiring this year.
He said Gillibrand, a Democrat, "learned to have friends on both sides of the aisle." She interned in D'Amato's U.S. Senate office and later won a clerkship with Appellate Judge Jeffrey Miner, a Reagan appointee backed by D'Amato.
"There are friendship chains that sometimes transcend the obvious," McEneny said, such as the judge who lived down the road from her. "Judge Miner. He was a Republican, but a good social friend."
Gillibrand said she applied for both jobs, but doesn't know if anyone recommended her. And she said she didn't always get the job she wanted: She failed to win an appointment as an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan or in Brooklyn.
Her job as a political appointee under then-HUD secretary and now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ended after seven months when George W. Bush won the White House in 2000.
That's when she began thinking of running for office as the only route to public service, she said. In 2006, she won an upstate House seat in an upset.
Gillibrand set up Off the Sidelines, an organization to encourage women to run for office. "It's part of who I am," she said, citing her grandmother's creation of the Democratic Women's Club in Albany.
Though she has declared she wants Hillary Clinton to make another bid for the White House, Gillibrand's name has begun to pop up as a candidate.
"In talk amongst friends around here, we would like to see her seek higher office," said Darius Shahinfar, an Albany lawyer who helped Gillibrand's first run for Congress.
"I actually think governor of New York," he said. "It's awfully hard to run for president from the Senate."
Asked about her ambitions, Gillibrand demurred. "I would like to be the senator from New York," she said. "I hope I get to serve a six-year term."
EDUCATION Bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College; Law degree from UCLA
CAREER Appointed in 2009, and elected in 2010, to serve out the term of former U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; serves on Senate committees on Agriculture, Armed Services, Environment and Aging. Previously elected twice to U.S. House
FAMILY Married with two sons
Total campaign contributions $15.5 million
Total spent $14.0 million
Cash on hand $2.4 million
Source: Federal Election Commission, as of Oct. 17, 2012