First lady not first on Lazio's home turf

June 14, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

FREEPORT, N.Y. -- By noon the other day, the temperature was already approaching the 90s as a cool Rep. Rick Lazio arrived for the ribbon-cutting to open the annual Freeport Nautical Mile Festival. A perpetual boyish grin met all well-wishers as he posed with the local notables.

Leisurely, the 42-year-old Republican and a small entourage strolled down the town's long fishing pier, stopping to greet operators of the various stands set up along the way who were hawking everything from funnel cakes and lemonade to handicrafts and cruises on Long Island Sound.

His open face was familiar to many on the pier by now, thanks to the blitz of television coverage he has received from the moment he jumped into the race for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton on the sudden withdrawal of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But to make sure, a local advance man walked in front of him inviting his neighbors to "say hello to Rick Lazio."

They responded cordially and, in most cases, with enthusiasm as well, wishing him good luck without his having to make any political pitch. That in itself was not surprising, Freeport being a Republican town in Republican Nassau County. But greeters who owned up to being Democrats were equally welcoming.

Part of it, no doubt, is the phenomenon -- a young and attractive newcomer being propelled into national attention by the personal circumstances of Mr. Giuliani's departure from the race and the celebrity stature of his opponent, the nation's first lady.

But it also seemed to be Mr. Lazio's unpretentious manner as he sauntered unhurriedly down the pier, dressed in a yellow polo shirt and tan slacks. Characterized from the start in filling the Giuliani vacancy as "the anti-Hillary," Mr. Lazio, after initially pushing the carpetbagger issue hard, now goes easier on it. Voters well know that Ms. Clinton is a born-again New Yorker and they aren't hesitant to tell him about it.

"Send the Clintons back to Arkansas," a strapping man in shorts says as he shakes Mr. Lazio's hand. At the funnel cakes stand, the owner, Grace Serro, tells him: "I hope you win." As he moves on, she's asked why. "Because I don't want Hillary to win. I want a native New Yorker. And I'd love to have a Long Islander."

She says the latter as if it would be a novelty to have Mr. Lazio, from neighboring Suffolk County, in the Senate, when in fact Long Islanders had just finished having 18 years of representation by Al D'Amato of Nassau County. But conservative "Pothole Al" had become too much of a joke to be proud of, and the more moderate Mr. Lazio is a clear contrast.

The anti-Hillary sentiment is often heard here. "I don't think much of her," says Ken Shanley, a 40-year-old plumber. "I know she has a right to run in New York if she has an address here, but I think she's a little too pushy."

Allan Mittlemark, head of a local sales organization and a Republican, says of Mr. Lazio: "I'm intrigued. I didn't know anything about him, [but] he'll get my vote. I wouldn't vote for Hillary."

His wife, Marge, a Democrat who likes the first lady, says of her critics: "They don't care if they put up a puppy dog, they'll vote for him because they're just against Hillary." As for Mr. Lazio, she says of the recent events that opened the Republican door for him: "He's a lucky, lucky man. Timing is everything."

As a longtime Long Islander himself, Mr. Lazio would figure to do well in the suburbs, which make up an estimated 25 percent of the vote in the state. But he may have a hard time matching Mr. Giuliani's popularity there. Mr. Shanley, who was strongly for the mayor, tells why: "He's done a terrific job in the city. The streets are clean. My wife used to work in the city and would come home crying, with all the crime. She went the other day and was amazed as how good it was."

Mr. Lazio, asked how he feels being viewed as "the anti-Hillary," diplomatically replies: "I want to channel that energy into a more positive way if I can. People often make the point that in eight years [in Congress] you've done good things for New York, but I can't think of one thing in eight years your opponent has done for New York."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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