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Clinton-Lazio II: Stick to the High Road
by Dana Chasin

In this space, prior to the first debate last month between First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cong. Rick Lazio, the suggestion was made that Hillary could break the deadlock in the polls by sticking to substantive campaign issues. Indeed, she did that, Lazio made a cross-stage, drama-queen bid to intimidate her into agreeing to a mutual soft money ban, she was judged the winner of the debate and has since jumped out to her biggest lead yet in the New York Senate race, 7-10 points in most polls.

The First Lady and Mr. Lazio met for their second of probably three debates yesterday in Manhattan, a much less confrontational affair than the first that will have little impact on the polls, perhaps narrowing them slightly in the weeks ahead. Just ahead now is a media barrage from Lazio, who has raised money at three times the rate of Mrs. Clinton over the last three months and may become a ubiquitous Mr. October. So this may end up an exceedingly close race.

But Mrs. Clinton can protect and sustain her current lead if she follows the formula that served her well in the first debate: let others grovel, ask prying and prurient questions, and try stunts designed to shift the voters’ focus away from issues and onto personalities. She gains by speaking to the issues where she and Lazio disgaree, on which, almost down-the-line, a 60 percent majority of New Yorkers agrees with her.

The debate yesterday provided an example of how badly things can go if the First Lady concedes the significance of the ‘personality’ dimension of the election:

Clinton: "Last month, Mr. Lazio said that this was an issue of trust and character. He was right. And if New Yorkers can't trust him to keep his word for 10 days, how can they trust him for six years on issues like Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs and education?"

Responded Lazio, in the only laugh-line of the debate: "Mrs. Clinton, please, no lectures from Motel 1600 on campaign finance reform."

This exchange came mid-debate, in reference to the soft-money ban that both candidates agreed to last month. Lazio brought the campaign finance reform issue front-and-center with his antics at the first debate, pressed Clinton for a soft-money agreement on the spot and secured it from her within two weeks. Not two weeks later, he appeared to have violated the agreement by running ads paid for by the Republican National Committee. Not a violation, he claimed, since there was an exception in a footnote to the agreement permitting Party-paid ads. The devil is in the details.

Mrs. Clinton, herself perfectly compliant with the agreement, found it impossible to enforce it even among her allies. The Sierra Club announced that it would refuse to abide by the agreement (endearing it not only to other groups supporting Clinton but to all interest groups afraid that agreements like this might become popular and put them out of the political contribution business. The Sierra Club continues to violate this agreement, despite pleas from Clinton to desist.).

The most insidious aspect of this exchange between the candidates is that it masquerades as an issue-based argument about campaign finance reform, but actually allows Lazio to use the issue as a pretext for personal attacks, as the Q&A out-take from yesterday’s debate demonstrates. This is not an accident but is part of a deliberate strategic objective of the Lazio camp, a trap that Mrs. Clinton must recognize and avoid if she hopes to maintain her lead and prevail.

Already, the air attack of these two campaigns rains down whenever the TV is on in New York these days. Spending at an all-time record rate for a U.S. Senate election, the candidates threaten to push each others’ negatives to record heights, become bogged down in tactical detail, appear combative and defensive, and, worst of all for Hillary, distracted from the issues. The air war could play into Lazio’s hands and Hillary is right to hold to an agreement that would limit it.

One of the most common strategic objectives for Republicans, especially where registered Democrats outnumber them, is to seek to depress turnout, since GOP voter turnout tends to be less variable than Democrats’. In New York State, Democrats hold a 5-to-3 million Democratic registration advantage. Lazio hopes that the air war, combined with low turnout among Democrats convinced that Al Gore will win New York State by a landslide over Gov. George W. Bush in the Presidential election, will neutralize his party’s registration disadvantage.

Over the next four weeks until the election, New Yorkers will be awash in ads, with the air war ground-rules agreed to by the candidates observed only in the breach. Mrs. Clinton will win if the discussion remains focused on the issues that have given her the lead: economic assistance for upstate, prescription drug benefits, defense of reproductive rights, etc. But efforts to distract her from the issues will challenge her focus and resolve. The high road is a hard road, but, for Mrs. Clinton, it is the road to ride to victory next month.

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.