More Big Apple bite for first lady

June 16, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Does it make any difference whether Republican Rudy Giuliani or Rick Lazio is running against Democrat Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate seat? Conventional wisdom holds that the race will be even more of a referendum on the first lady against the little known Mr. Lazio than it was against the controversial mayor of New York.

Conversations with strategists in both parties here suggest there is considerably more than anti-Hillary sentiment involved in how the election will play out between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Lazio.

Central to that conclusion is that the New York State vote can be divided into three parts -- roughly 30 percent in New York City, 25 percent in the suburbs and 45 percent upstate -- and Mr. Giuliani's withdrawal creates both opportunities and problems for the first lady in each constituency.

Both campaigns agree that with Mr. Giuliani out, Ms. Clinton will have the prospect of a larger vote margin in the city he runs. Some Democratic strategists say she must win at least 70 percent of the city's vote to overcome the GOP totals in the suburbs and upstate, and that Mr. Lazio, a Long Islander, will have little chance of peeling off much of the Democratic city vote as Mr. Giuliani might have done.

In the suburbs as well, both party insiders say, Mr. Giuliani's departure from the race provides an opening for Ms. Clinton. John Marino, a former Democratic state chairman, says Mr. Giuliani was "enormously popular in the suburbs because folks there now like to come to the city. They associate that with Giuliani, and they don't get any of the negatives of living in the city."

A Clinton adviser puts it more graphically. In the suburbs, he says, "Giuliani was virtually an icon. He took New York City by the neck and banged it on the sidewalk." Suburbanites, he says, "felt they could go into the city for dinner and a show and nothing would happen to them." Mr. Lazio has no such record with which to lure Democratic votes in the burbs.

That leaves upstate, from Westchester County to Buffalo. There, both Democratic and Republican strategists agree, Mr. Giuliani's withdrawal makes Ms. Clinton's task harder, after months of diligent courtship in the strongly Republican region.

"Upstate has a historical antipathy toward mayors of New York City," a Democratic political veteran says. Also, he says, "Giuliani's temperament was pretty hard-edged for upstate," and his endorsement of Democrat Mario Cuomo over Republican George Pataki in 1994 still grates on the GOP faithful. For all these reasons, upstate Republicans are not shedding oceans of tears over the New York mayor's move to the sidelines, and his replacement by Mr. Lazio.

Harold Ickes, a senior Clinton adviser, says of her upstate effort to date: "She needed 18 months to establish her credentials. She really made an enormous amount of headway just by going there every week, going to every county. It has stood her in good stead in overcoming the carpetbagger issue -- why she's running and all that, although those questions are still there."

Mike Murphy, the John McCain strategist now running the Lazio campaign, agrees that upstate will be more of a battleground but says Ms. Clinton also has "no special appeal to the suburbs," where polls indicate many women oppose her.

Former Governor Cuomo says the level of hostility toward the first lady astounds him and predicts a close race. In New York, he says, "Dracula could run with a swastika on his T-shirt and get 44 percent. The vast majority of Republicans don't want Hillary." With Mr. Lazio replacing Mr. Giuliani, however, Mr. Lazio's "youthfulness and pretty looks are at war with gravitas" on display in the highly intelligent, serious Ms. Clinton, he says.

New Yorkers haven't had the chance yet to distinguish differences on the key issues, Mr. Ickes says, but "most people think Hillary is on (their) side, though they can't define that very well yet. Where Lazio is on anything, they have not the foggiest idea. Right now she's positioned well on a range of issues and he's poking his way around."

For his part, Mr. Lazio says he wants the race to be decided on issues and not personality. "I think we win on the issues," he says, based on his eight years in Congress. That record clearly will be a Clinton target in the coming months in all regions of the state.

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

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