Lazio works on the `who?'

N.Y. rival calls self native son, first lady `extreme' interloper

May 22, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WEST ISLIP, N.Y. - In much of New York, he might best be known as what's-his-name. Rick A. Lazio, the Republican congressman from Long Island running in perhaps the most-watched Senate race in history, has some introductions to make.

First off, he is describing who he is not. The man who will challenge the first-ever first lady Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, wasted no time over the weekend drawing sharp contrasts - branding her an interloper and himself a native son, calling her "far left" and himself moderate.

"Mrs. Clinton takes it to the extreme - I think she takes a lot of issues to the extreme," Lazio said yesterday. "I think I reflect mainstream New York."

He made this pitch at warp speed, brandishing his New York accent for a rally Saturday here in his hometown, offering up anti-Clinton barbs on the Sunday talk shows and then taking that message on the road on a two-day statewide campaign fly-around. The 100 percent home-grown, 100 percent Not Hillary theme is on T-shirts and street signs, and is expected to punctuate a New York bus tour.

Lazio finds himself in a game of catch-up after New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out of the race last week, citing health reasons.

Boyish and telegenic, Lazio could pass for a 42-year-old Cub Scout, not an in-your-face national figure like the mayor.

So the 8-year veteran of Congress has a problem. Voters outside the native Long Islander's district can't place Lazio's face. Bellmore resident Ron Miller, a longtime Republican who can talk a mile-a-minute about Giuliani, replied "Nuthin" when asked what he knows about Lazio. How the challenger will become a brand-name around New York is a lingering question.

To that end, Lazio repeated "Lazio dot.com," his campaign's Web site address, in local interviews and downloaded as much detail as he could from his career in Congress - portraying himself as a pro-abortion rights, anti-gun candidate who worked hard for New York's pet projects.

Lazio's friends came out in force this weekend, describing a man proudly lacking celebrity gloss who relates to voters better than the polarizing Giuliani.

`A regular guy'

"His greatest asset is that he's a regular guy," said Christopher Bodkin, an Islip councilman. "He's going to overcome all of Clinton's tinsel and glitter and show that he can get the job done, that he's one of us."

While the Republican Party is scrambling after losing the first-choice candidate, the obvious strategy is to tap into pockets of Hillary hostility.

Tartly summing up that sentiment at Lazio's kickoff rally, family friend Terri Allar said simply, "Over my dead body will I see Hillary win."

Lazio, a former prosecutor who entered politics at the age of 25, is building on such feelings by trying to equate Clinton's ideas with the same big-government programs that he says put New York in a recession in the 1980s.

Mostly, though, he is trying to paint Clinton as a zealous outsider.

"I didn't need a Senate race to commit me to New York," he told NBC's Meet the Press, suggesting Clinton wants a "steppingstone for national office."

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to brand Lazio as a loyal combatant for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, accusing him of standing behind the ousted Republican leader and his Contract With America and supporting an agenda of the far right.

To some extent, these attacks might not stick, given that Lazio has adopted mostly middle-of-the-road positions while in Congress.

Lazio voted for the Brady law, which requires background checks on handgun purchasers, and a ban on assault weapons - although he has not called for gun licensing and registration. He voted for the 1993 law that grants workers unpaid family and medical leave and for a raise in the minimum wage.

Views on abortion

A practicing Catholic, he favors abortion rights, but opposes a controversial late-term procedure critics call "partial-birth abortion." He also opposes public funding of abortion.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's campaign spokesman, called Lazio a "multiple choice" candidate on abortion who picks opportunistic positions. Wolfson said Lazio is already running a negative campaign: "He had a chance to take the high road. He chose to take the low road right off the bat."

Unlike Giuliani, who had alienated some New York power brokers, Lazio is likely to gain the state's significant Conservative Party endorsement. But it is unclear how Democratic and independent swing voters - critical for a GOP victory in a statewide race - will react to the newly minted candidate.

"Just because you do a good job as a congressman, are you worthy of being senator?" said Mark Weiss, 52, a salesman from West Babylon, N.Y., who described himself as an on-the-fence Democrat. Over coffee at the Delphi Diner in Lazio's district, he added, "I still think Hillary Clinton supports the everyday working type."

On Long Island - whose most famous local personality might have been Joey Buttafuoco - supporters were attempting to make Lazio a household name.

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