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Debate Offers Hillary A Chance To Beat The Dead Heat In Polls
by Dana Chasin

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will participate in her first televised debate ever this week. It represents a critical opportunity for her to cut through the current static in the U.S. Senate campaign in New York, establish the campaign as issues-based, and break the dead heat in the polls that has persisted for months.

[The debate, 7-8 p.m. this Wednesday evening in Buffalo, will be moderated by Tim Russert and televised on NBC affiliates statewide.]

Time spent raising money, money spent raising negatives, a war of attack ads impugning credibility and character, stagnant polls, scant attention to issues? This election wasn’t originally supposed to be this way.

When Mayor Giuliani was in the race, New York voters expected a high-profile, maybe even high-minded race, glitzy and wonkish by turns, with epic debates on Competing Visions of Government between two Leading Minds. But Giuliani dropped out in May and out sprang Long Island Congressman Rick Lazio, smiling and laughing and resolutely refusing to raise any issues except “Hillary.”

Issues vs. character

Now, the U.S. Senate race in New York between First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio is a microcosm of the Presidential race in this respect: the Democratic nominees gain by waging an issues-based campaign, while the GOP candidates rely heavily on the theme of character to prevail.

The First Lady came to prominence through her delegated responsibilities on issues and causes well beyond that of almost every prior First Lady. Her main strength as a candidate and her rationale for running are her considerable intellectual prowess and commitment to these issues. Her vulnerabilities are the so-called “character” questions, stemming often from allegations against her that have never been proved and personal behavior not her own.

To win, she must focus attention on the issues where she differs with Lazio, since a solid majority of New York voters shares her main views. The First Lady has some disadvantages to overcome in this effort. She is associated by marriage with many of the character questions involved and has been subject to extensive and well-publicized investigation. Rick Lazio beats the “carpetbagger” drum, linking this issue to broader credibility and character questions. Moreover, Lazio’s moderate voting record and focus on character makes it harder for voters to perceive issue distinctions between the two candidates.

Lazio has succeeded in making the main issue Hillary herself, largely through a series of television ads directly challenging Hillary’s personal credibility. Hillary has retaliated, citing mistakes in Lazio’s proposals and misrepresentations of his own record, but not in a manner that shifts the campaign into the issues arena and away from Lazio’s “character” turf.

The result, despite the 5-to-3 million registered voter advantage that Democrats have in New York State, is a virtual dead heat in the polls, which settled in within weeks of Giuliani’s exit from the race. Over the last three months, neither candidate has broken through the inertia in the polls, gotten much beyond the margin of error or sustained a lead. A stubborn core ten percent of the electorate remains undecided. The negative character ratings of both candidates are the only numbers that have moved much, and in the wrong direction. It is a formula for depressing voter turnout, which disadvantages Democrats in New York.

Wednesday’s debate: what to watch for

This can change. If Hillary is to use Wednesday’s debate to break the deadlock, she should strive to keep this forum focused on the key issues on which she and Lazio differ and where most New Yorkers agree with her: education, (limited) health care, and economic development. She can generate new momentum if these issues predominate; Lazio stands to gain the more debate time is devoted to character questions.

In Wednesday’s debate, Hillary will need to focus on the core social issues that impelled her to make the race:

  • EDUCATION -- Hillary has long favored increases in Federal education aid for hiring more teachers and building new schools. Lazio will be at pains to show that his support for such improvements in education predates his entry into the Senate race.
  • HEALTH CARE -- As long as she avoids the “U”-word (universal) in discussing health care, Hillary stands to gain from her strong support for measures such as increased prescription drug benefits for seniors, which is as hot as any issue in American politics today. Similarly, the choice issue is a big winner for her, given the restrictions on reproductive rights favored by Lazio.
  • UPSTATE -- Hillary now trails Lazio in upstate New York by 15 points. She probably cannot win there but needs to cut the margin. Her program of development assistance and targeted tax cuts to stimulate growth throughout the economically lagging region could help her close the gap. If she can get upstaters’ attention on the issue, some may think twice about Lazio.

Rick Lazio will want to emphasize another set of themes:

  • “NEW YORK” -- Repeating the words is a winner for Lazio, with that unmistakable local accent. He may not have set foot in every county in the state, as Hillary has. But the more he dwells on, well, dwelling, not to mention clamming on Long Island Sound as a youth (tho maybe not on attending Vassar), the more Lazio drives home the still-salient “carpetbagger” charge.
  • WOMEN’S ISSUES -- There are a couple of issues Lazio can raise without fear: those on which he and Hillary agree. Appearing agreeable is what he does best. Lazio does have a record of local environmental activism, which dovetails with his support for breast cancer research to appeal to women, suburbanites, and independents, all vital constituencies among which he leads Hillary in the polls.
  • TAXES -- Since you can’t hug babies and make small talk during a televised debate, you should be prepared to sell your sole policy initiative in the campaign to date, in Lazio’s case, tax cuts. The scale of Lazio’s tax cut plan ($776 billion over 10 years) is actually closer to Gore’s than Bush’s and details in his plan rely on iffy assumptions and accounting. As a result, the plan has not generated much popular enthusiasm. But at least he has one.
The debate on Wednesday will represent a higher degree of visibility for Rick Lazio than anything he has experienced, though the election debate forum will not be new to him. Conversely, Hillary has addressed audiences around the world, including millions on television, but has never appeared in an election debate on her own behalf, making her the first First Lady ever to do so. Perhaps the newness of the experience, not to mention its historical dimension, will incline the candidates to stick to the issues.

For the First Lady, the debate is a chance to bring into focus her commitment to the issues New Yorkers care about most and her differences with Lazio on these issues. If she does not take the initiative, the focus is likely to remain on “Hillary,” Lazio’s most effective issue. And the polls will continue to show an essentially dead heat.

DANA CHASIN is President of the Empire State Democratic Initiative, a statewide membership organization providing opportunities to younger citizens of New York State to participate in the political process.