The real test in New York race

May 24, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Much of the runaway speculation about the new shape of the New York Senate campaign misses the point. The critical question remains what it always has been -- that is, whether Hillary Rodham Clinton can stand up to the peculiar pressures of running for office in the Big Apple.

Up to this point, Ms. Clinton has had a relatively smooth ride. She made some clumsy moves early in the exploratory phase of her campaign, but those blunders faded from the public debate in the last two or three months. Instead, much of the focus has been on Rudy Giuliani and whether the mayor would self-immolate, as he threatened to do on several occasions before illness forced him to scuttle his candidacy.

Now, however, the cameras will swivel back to the first lady. She will be compared not to a political version of the Wild Man of Borneo but to a polished professional politician with little if any baggage, sofar as is known now at least.

The book on Rick Lazio after eight years in the House of Representatives and a long career as a prosecutor and state legislator is that he is a ringwise candidate who will run a surefooted campaign. And the Long Island Republican is moderate enough in his views on social questions to win in a state that has elected people like Gov. George Pataki and former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who carried the state twice before losing to Charles Schumer in 1998.

Mr. Lazio also can be expected to compete on close to even terms in campaign resources. There are many Republican contributors across the country who will be happy to write checks if they can be part of defeating Hillary Clinton. And this is a campaign that will claim so much attention from the media that money may be less critical than usual.

A Lazio victory is a realistic possibility. Matched against Mr. Giuliani, the first lady's support has never crossed the 50 percent threshold even though she is universally known to the New York electorate. The message is clearly that there are many voters in the state who simply won't accept her. Or, put another way, there is a significant bloc who will support anyone else. One survey over the weekend found Mr. Lazio with 31percent although 74 percent said they didn't know anything about him.

The key, however, is how Ms. Clinton handles herself later in the year as the campaign intensifies. In New York, the political tides can change daily and sometimes even with the latest news cycle. Candidates have to be able to react quickly and correctly to "issues" that blow up between noon and the evening news programs.

More to the point, the candidates themselves have to think ontheir feet and react. Sending a flack out to speak to the press, as presidents and first ladies are able to get away with, won't do the trick. The candidate cosseted by the Secret Service and an entourage of followers can be at a disadvantage in a state in which campaigns are contact sports.

It is also true, of course, that Rick Lazio has to demonstrate that he can play the game effectively as a statewide candidate. But he defeated a popular nine-term Democrat, Tom Downey, in winning his House seat in 1992. And in his first days as a Senate candidate he has been quick on his feet. Making the circuit of television talk shows over the weekend, for example, he showed he will not allow his opponents to define him as some like-minded stooge for Newt Gingrich.

Although Mr. Lazio clearly lacks the celebrity of a Rudy Giuliani, he doesn't carry the burden of being a New York City mayor trying to persuade Upstate Republicans he cares about anything north ofthe Bronx. Because he supports abortion rights and gun control, although with some restrictions, Mr. Lazio can prove acceptable to moderate voters who are simply resisting Ms. Clinton on the carpetbagger issue.

With Rudy Giuliani on the sidelines, Hillary Clinton is the candidate with the star power in this Senate campaign. What she must demonstrate is that she can produce a message beyond the fact that she has chosen New York to act out her political ambitions.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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