Lazio, Clinton spar

no knockout

Neither candidate takes major misstep nor scores great gain

Scandal, soft money issues

September 14, 2000|By Paul West and Ellen Gamerman | Paul West and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BUFFALO, N.Y. - With new polls showing the first lady edging into the lead, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican rival in New York's Senate contest tangled in their first televised debate last night over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the influence of millions of dollars worth of soft-money ads in their race.

During an often testy and sometimes personal debate, Rep. Rick A. Lazio, a Republican congressman from Long Island, challenged Clinton to sign an agreement to forgo raising and spending unregulated soft money for the rest of the campaign.

"If you agree to do this, we'll be making a huge statement about character and trust to the rest of the country," said Lazio, who pulled a copy of the agreement from his inside coat pocket and tried to thrust it into her hands in a bit of political stagecraft.

"That was a wonderful performance, and you did it very well," Clinton responded, with a laugh, after her Republican opponent had accused her of raising "buckets" of soft money in Hollywood.

She shook his hand, while effectively rebuffing his offer by demanding that he obtain written agreements from independent groups not to spend tens of millions of dollars on his behalf.

The fast-moving debate included a moment of unscripted drama when the moderator, Tim Russert of NBC, asked Clinton whether she regretted "misleading" the nation about her husband's behavior after the Lewinsky scandal broke and whether she would apologize for characterizing the Clintons' critics as members of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

With a resigned shake of her head, Clinton responded haltingly, "Obviously I didn't mislead anyone."

"I didn't know the truth," she said. "And there's a great deal of pain associated with that."

Sidestepping the question of an apology, she said, "I wish that, uh, we could all, um, look at it from the perspective of history, but we can't yet. We're going to have to wait until those books are written."

Then she turned her answer into an assault on her opponent. "I'm standing here running for the Senate. I didn't cast the votes that Newt Gingrich asked me to cast," she said, in one of her recurring campaign themes.

Lazio, unwilling to let the Lewinsky issue pass, pressed the attack: "I think that, frankly, what's so troubling here ... is somehow that it only matters what you say when you get caught," he said.

"And character and trust is about well more than that and blaming others every time you have responsibility. That has become a pattern for my opponent, and it's something I reject and I believe that New Yorkers reject."

Cordiality lost

The high-stakes encounter began on a cordial note, as the two candidates posed, smiling and shaking hands, for several seconds. But when the hour ended, there were no handshakes.

Lazio walked to the front row of the audience and hugged his wife, Patricia. Clinton, whose husband was home at the White House, stepped to Russert's lectern and greeted him.

Maurice Carroll, a veteran analyst of New York politics, now at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said that neither candidate made a major gaffe last night and "there were no knockouts."

In recent weeks, Clinton's candidacy has received a significant lift from Vice President Al Gore's soaring popularity in the presidential contest in New York. A new statewide survey showed Gore widening his advantage over Republican George W. Bush, to 25 percentage points among likely voters.

Clinton, meantime, has pulled into a lead of between 2 and 5 points in the Senate race, according to the latest polls.

"The real question about the election is how badly does George Bush lose New York," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York.

"It's going to be a close [Senate] race, unless George Bush gets creamed here and loses by a million votes. For better or worse, the fate of both Lazio and Clinton is tied to George Bush.'`

Clinton has been campaigning around this state for more than 14 months, and those efforts appear to have increased her popularity.

But she remains a polarizing figure. A clear majority of Lazio's backers say they are motivated more by their dislike for Clinton than by positive feelings for the Republican, according to a survey released this week by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"Basically, if you're voting for Hillary, you like Hillary," said Lee M. Miringoff, the institute's director. "If you're voting for Lazio, you don't like Hillary."

Doubts about Clinton's motivation in seeking the Senate seat being vacated by veteran Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan continue to be a drag on her campaign.

Carpetbagger charge

Republicans charge that she is a carpetbagger who is using New York merely as a way station for a future presidential run. To counter that, Clinton is pledging that she would serve out her entire six-year term.

Lazio has tried to exploit Clinton's vulnerability on the carpetbagger question by airing commercials that claim she's "done nothing for New York."

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