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Rick Lazio and the art of fighting nice

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Is Hillary's rival in peril of pleasing all the people too much of the time?

July 10, 2000
Web posted at: 4:45 p.m. EDT (2045 GMT)

After all the listening, nodding and waving in parades, someone has finally thrown a punch in the New York Senate race. In an appeal for money, Rick Lazio sent out these words, "Hillary Clinton and her husband have embarrassed our country and disgraced their powerful posts." He then zeroed in on the mother lode of what bugs some people about her. "She covets power and control and thinks she should be dictating how other people run their lives."

Wow, that soccer mom who's had it up to here with Hillary couldn't have put it better! But the ink on the letter was barely dry before Lazio was trying to put a smiley face above the i in his signature. "Frankly," Lazio said, always a tip-off that a politician is about to fog up your glasses, "these letters are written, you know, not by me." Riding on his newly christened Mainstream Express, he went on to explain, "It's not what you send some donor list that matters. What matters is how you are conducting yourself."

Conducting himself like the plucky boy next door has worked well for Lazio, who has risen quickly from being a local prosecuting attorney to a Suffolk County legislator to becoming a Congressman at age 34. He also knows from a lot of recent history that going negative can be dangerous. The easiest way for a candidate with serious character flaws to neutralize them is to have an opponent point them out. Bill Bradley began his descent when he called Al Gore a liar. And Hillary began her rise in the polls when dark forces--Ken Starr, the Congress, the vast right-wing conspiracy--aligned against her.

But isn't it also perilous in a place like New York not to show a little grit? Lazio's greatest vulnerability may be the perception that he remains, even after eight years in the House, a lightweight. This doesn't hurt him among regular Republicans, who love him to pieces for staying close to his roots, remaining polite to his elders and not rocking any boats. His supporters admire him for straddling factions, sticking with Speaker Newt Gingrich through a failed coup to depose him while staying cozy with insurgent leader Dick Armey, who led it. In a safe seat, it's fine to wait until the end of a roll call before deciding whether to give your vote to your district or your leadership, as long as you rise in seniority and bring home the bacon. He has parsed his votes so carefully that the neutral National Journal rates him a moderate, making it hard for Hillary to morph him into Tom DeLay. In fact, last week she edged her position on partial-birth abortion closer to Lazio's.

He has a knack for being all things to all people, moving as easily among the blue collars of Islip as he did among the starched white collars of Southampton at a glittery party attended by wealthy liberals from Manhattan over the 4th of July weekend. At the 78th annual dinner of the Agudath Israel, he outschmoozed all the other pols there. He was at the center of a thousand bobbing black hats in the Hilton ballroom eager to get a closer look at the golden son of Italy who had come seeking their support. He seems to embody white-picket-fence family values. You'd want him to marry your daughter if he hadn't already married his grad-school sweetheart who's produced two adorable children and boasts that she cleans her own house. Do not expect any bimbo eruptions.

When running for the Senate, there's a problem in being the Congressman Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Page. You may no longer need a stentorian voice or mane of white hair to graduate to a seat in the American House of Lords, but a little gravitas, a bit of Olympian detachment or at least a few outsize personality quirks help. Hillary has the latter in spades and rock-star fame. And while Rudy Giuliani may have been too knee-in-the-groin nasty to attract all the anti-Hillary votes, the fresh-faced Lazio could be just too aw-shucks nice, a slice of Velveeta on white in a state with a decided taste for roquefort on rye, a place where full-frontal egomaniacs like Ed Koch, Bella Abzug and Al D'Amato have thrived and from where larger-than-life figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert Kennedy have held court. Even Chuck Schumer is a strong cup of coffee. Not since John Lindsay have New Yorkers bought into boyish.

Lazio may be more willing to add some rough edges to his Little League, High School Stamp Club and Youth for Ford persona if his early successes hadn't come without his having had to bare his teeth. While Lazio rightly gets credit for a David vs. Goliath victory over 18-year veteran Tom Downey in 1992, Downey largely defeated himself. In the memorable words of the national Republican Party chairman, the party was willing to "stuff money into every orifice" to capitalize on the weakness of an incumbent already hemorrhaging from self-inflicted wounds, like overdrafts at the House Bank and jet skiing in Barbados on a junket filmed by ABC.

Lazio may see even less reason to risk going negative in this race, when his opponent's unfavorables may already be high enough to do her in. Otherwise reliably Democratic women were willing to vote for the otherwise unpalatable Giuliani because of their distaste for Hillary's assumption of derivative power, her high-handed bungling of health-care reform, her seeming deal with her husband for silence in exchange for career advancement, aggravated by the famous sight of their dancing on the beach in the Virgin Islands and, more recently, of her giggling like a newlywed after their first night in the new house in Chappaqua. Lazio may think that Hillary does well enough spiking her own negatives without any help from him and that this could be the year, even in New York, when the nice guy finishes first.


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Cover Date: July 17, 2000

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