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Jewish World Review May 31, 2000 / 26 Iyar, 5760

Roger Simon

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Lazio's secret weapon -- LAST WEEK, hardly anybody knew his name.

"Rick Lazio," David Letterman joked, "one day you're a busboy at Olive Garden and the next you're running for the Senate against Hillary Clinton."

But today? Today Lazio is in a virtual dead heat with Clinton, according to one poll.

"Can you believe it has only been a week?" Lazio said into a cell phone aboard the Staten Island ferry. He then explained why voters will overlook Hillary's star power for a four-term congressman from untrendy Suffolk County on Long Island.

"What has she done in the last eight years for New York?" he said. "Can anyone remember one instance when she used her considerable influence with the administration to stand up for New York? I can't."

The fresh-faced Lazio has been called a "42-year-old Cub Scout" and a "soccer dad." But beneath the surface, some say, there may be more surface.

Lazio has built a career on being inoffensive, on placing constituent needs above ideological crusades and by courting the favor of the House leadership.

And Hillary quickly went to work on Lazio for the last. "The facts are that he was closely allied those years with the leadership in Congress, and, I think, New Yorkers need to know that," she said.

Or, as former White House aide Paul Begala put it, Lazio "was a total butt boy for (Newt) Gingrich the whole time he was in the Congress."

Lazio sees it as a matter of get-along, go-along politics. "I had and have a very good working relationship with the leaders," he told me. "If you want to deliver for New York and protect New York's interests, you don't have a relationship that alienates people who determine whether your voice is heard or your bills get to the floor."


And Lazio knows how to use his boyish charm. "He cajoles, he'll grab your arm, he'll make a joke," said Ed Gillespie, a former aide to the Republican leadership and now a party strategist. "He is not confrontational, but not overly deferential, either."

For all the chatter about how the New York campaign will now be about issues instead of personalities, the Democrats are girding for a personal and negative contest. "Unlike (New York Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani, Lazio wants the job," said a senior adviser to Hillary. "Giuliani was lethargic; Lazio is not. He is an energetic, slippery guy who knows how to throw mud. We are taking him very, very seriously."

While Lazio has worked hard to assemble a middle-of-the-road voting record -- pro-abortion rights, but against "partial-birth" abortions, for example -- some insist that the only thing you find in the middle of the road is a yellow stripe.

"He is ambitious and cautious," said Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. "I call him the kind of guy who will bring you ice in winter: When supporting you doesn't count, he'll support you. I have never seen Rick defy the (GOP) leadership, but you can work with him. He's a reasonable man."

"I dislike shorthand labels," Lazio said in his defense. "On fiscal issues, on national security, I'm right of center. On other issues like the environment, the homeless, the disabled and support for the arts, I'm mainstream."

Those commentators who quickly decided he would be a stronger candidate than Giuliani because he lacks Giuliani's negatives forgot that he also lacks Giuliani's positives, most importantly Giuliani's support in New York City. Giuliani would have taken votes away from Hillary Clinton in the city, forcing her to make up those votes elsewhere. Lazio cannot expect to draw the same city support, leaving Hillary with a more traditional race.

"Now, all she has to do is what Democrats usually do to win the state," one Democratic adviser said. "Win big in New York City and hold her own elsewhere."

Still, Lazio is not the lightning rod that either Giuliani was or Hillary still is. It could well turn out that after several years of political tumult, voters decide that bland is beautiful.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate