World

Playing political hardball

Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio fight it out in the campaign for a New York Senate seat

Andrew Phillips October 30 2000
World

Playing political hardball

Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio fight it out in the campaign for a New York Senate seat

Andrew Phillips October 30 2000

Playing political hardball

World

Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio fight it out in the campaign for a New York Senate seat

By Andrew Phillips in Buffalo

Let’s make it clear off the top: the

subject on New Yorkers’ lips last week was decidedly not the political death match between Hillary Rodham Clinton and her rival for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Republican congressman Rick Lazio. As they might say in Queens or the Bronx—no freakin’ way (though they’d probably use a stronger word than “freakin’”).

No, the obsession ol the moment was, of course, the Subway Series, the first all-New York baseball showdown since the Yankees licked the old Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1956 (page 34). How, the politicos wondered, might it all play out? Would it remind voters of Clinton’s much-mocked claim to be a closet Yankee fan despite her roots in Illinois? And would it give Lazio a chance to advertise his local-boy status by letting him tout his lifelong allegiance to the Mets? Lazio left nothing to chance: he showed up at Shea Stadium to watch the Mets clinch the National League pennant, then caught a ball tossed to him by pitcher Ai Leiter bearing the rude inscription: “Rick, kick Hillary’s ass.”

It was fitting that Lazio identifies with the Mets, traditionally the team of underdogs and wanna-bes. Heading into the final days before the Nov. 7 vote, he has faltered badly, running six to nine points behind Clinton in the polls. A Subway Series may only come along every two generations or so, but Clinton seems poised to accomplish something completely without precedent: use the job of First Lady as a springboard to win high office. This, despite the loathing she inspires from so many Americans—including many New Yorkers. Lazio has run not so much on who he is—a pleas-

ant, moderate, relatively young (42) congressman from Long Island—but on who he isn’t: Hillary. “You’re carrying the torch against the princess of evil,” a radio host in Watertown, N.Y., told him.

That, it turns out, probably won’t be enough. In part, it’s because Clinton dug in and learned what did not come naturally to her—how to be a grassroots campaigner. In blue-collar South Buffalo last week, she showed none of the awkwardness that marked her early efforts. From acknowledging the myriad local pols who crowded the stage at the Buffalo Irish Center to share in her celebrity, to navigating complicated local issues, Clinton was—or at least gave a good impression of being—utterly at home at a rousing old-style Democratic rally with Senator Edward Kennedy. “She’s learned on the job,” said Moody Pugh, vice-chairman of the Erie County

Democratic party. “She’s become an awesome campaigner.”

And like her husband, Bill, Hillary Clinton has been fortunate in choosing her opponents. The man who was long presumed to be her Republican challenger, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, dropped out of the race in May after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Lazio, a comparative unknown, jumped in—but has been criticized even in his own party for running a lazy, unfocused campaign. In contrast to Clinton’s polarizing personality, Lazio’s big card was likability, which he proceeded to throw away in their first televised debate on Sept. 13. First, he strode over to Clinton, thrust a paper containing a pledge to ban unregulated “soft money” from the campaign at her, and demanded that she sign it on the spot. Then, after Clinton was shaken by a pointed question about her husband’s betrayal of her with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Lazio rubbed it in by lecturing her about “blaming others every time you have responsibility.”

Lazio may have been trying to be tough, but he came off like a bully. His poll numbers immediately tanked, especially among the suburban female voters who are seen as a key bloc in almost every U.S. campaign, and Clinton has been riding high ever since. One post-debate poll put her support at 50 per cent—a level her opponents had said she could never reach because so many voters despise her. In New York City, with its relatively liberal, ethnic voters, she leads by a 3-to-l margin. Lazio is ahead in the suburbs and upstate—but not by much. And in swing areas like Buffalo, Clinton is doing better than expected.

To Clinton supporters who turned out in Buffalo to cheer her on at the Irish Center, getting the local economy moving dominates all other issues. “We’ve been down, down, down; we need all the help we can get,” said retired salesman William Lynch, 65. “If you’ve got a choice between a heavyweight and a lightweight to defend you, it’s easy. Hillary’s a heavy hitter. She’s got so many connections and friends and favours due, she’ll be able to deliver.”

One issue on voters’ minds almost never comes up publicly: her mysterious

relationship with her husband. In her second debate with Lazio on Oct. 8, she was asked bluntly why she stayed in her marriage after the Lewinsky episode. “I’ve made my choices,” she responded in subdued tones, pointing to her daughter, Chelsea, in the audience. “We have a family that means a lot to us. The choices I’ve made in my life are right for me.” Lazio wisely chose not to touch that again, but the sight of a First Lady flying solo around the state while her husband tends to his duties back in Washington was bound to raise questions. They are not together often: The New York Times reported recently that since the Clintons took possession of their house in suburban Chappaqua, N.Y., in January, the President has stayed overnight there with his wife two or three times a month—occasionally flying up in the evening for a quick visit.

Clinton’s strategists, though, have determinedly ignored all that, as well as her divisive personality. Their strategy has been to have her campaign like any other candidate—droning on about dairy subsidies and new bridges. But however much they may wish it, the New York race is like no other this year: it has at-

tracted record amounts of money, much of it from out of state. Clinton has raised about $37.6 million, 60 per cent from outside New York, and was embarrassed when it was revealed that her campaign had obtained 1,400 names from a list of visitors to White House social events— and sent fund-raising letters to them. (Organizers said it was a mistake and returned the money.) And Lazio has collected about $43.9 million—making forays as far afield as Alabama to solicit conservatives eager to see a final end to the Clinton era.

Clinton’s day job as First Lady has come back to trouble her in other ways. Only last week, independent counsel Robert Ray reported that she gave “factually false” sworn testimony during an investigation into an old controversy about her role in the firing of several employees of the White House travel office. Ray said there was not enough evidence to seek criminal charges against Clinton, but Lazio immediately reminded voters that “character counts in public service.” New Yorkers will have a chance to make that j udgment soon enough—right after the cheers and the groans from the Subway Series have faded away. E3