|RACING FOR THE SENATE|
May 30, 2000
Rep. Rick Lazio accepts the Republican nomination to run for Senator of New York after campaigning for a week and a half, and prepares to face Hillary Clinton this fall.
SPOKESMAN: Let's give a great welcome to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (applause)
GWEN IFILL: For months, the stage for the most celebrated Senate race in the country appeared set... the city's mayor versus the nation's first lady.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Look at these babies! Are they related? Different families?" No triplets... you better get them out of the rain. Thank you!"
GWEN IFILL: Hillary Rodham Clinton spent more than a year warming up for this race. She moved into a $1.7 million dollar Chappaqua, New York home late last year, became a born-again Yankees baseball fan, and in general set out to convince New Yorker that she is one of them. And she prepared to do battle with the man she considered her most likely foe: New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But all that changed two weeks ago, when Giuliani -- beset by health and marital problems -- abruptly withdrew from the race.
MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI: I used to think that the core of me was in politics. It isn't.
|An instant replacement|
GWEN IFILL: Almost instantly, a replacement candidate materialized. Rick Lazio, a 42-year-old congressman little known outside his long island district, jumped in to fill the void. A moderate Republican, Lazio calls himself pro-choice, but voted to ban what opponents call "partial birth" abortion. He's voted for gun control, including the Brady Bill, and supports publicly funded school vouchers. At first, Lazio trailed Hillary Clinton by 14 percentage points. Mrs. Clinton could afford to be gracious.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: If Congressman Lazio is the Republican nominee, there will be a clear difference between us on a number of issues because we've taken very different stands on everything from education to healthcare to the future of the economy, to how we take care of our children, as well as our elderly citizens. And I think we'll have a lot of time in the next days and weeks and months to discuss those differences.
GWEN IFILL: Lazio closed that gap quickly...producing signs and posters for a campaign announcement within 24 hours of Giuliani's departure.
TIM RUSSERT: Congressman Rick Lazio, welcome.
REP. RICK LAZIO: Hi, Tim.
TIM RUSSERT: Welcome to the Senate race.
REP. RICK LAZIO: Great to be on, in.
GWEN IFILL: Appearing the next day on all the major national Sunday talk Shows and jetting around the state in an aggressive getting-to-know-you tour. Last Friday, independent pollster john Zogby reported the race is now a dead heat. Hillary Clinton, whose aides discount the latest polls, has been campaigning aggressively as well, traveling to every county in the state. And following time-honored tradition, she marched in a Memorial Day parade yesterday. But Lazio marched in two... one side by side with Giuliani. This, even after he fell to the ground and split his lip open at a hometown parade earlier in the day. The eight stitches he received for his injury did not stop him from accepting his party's nomination at a state convention today.
REP. RICK LAZIO: I have to tell you, I know I look a little funny today and I've heard of this talk about pounding the pavement, but this is ridiculous! Ladies and gentlemen, I begin this campaign with no illusions. I am the underdog in this race. My opponent is better financed and better known. She comes to New York with the support of every left-wing special interest, from Washington insiders to the Hollywood elite. But, as I've said before, bring 'em on! (cheers and applause) I will not concede a single vote because I believe in the power of our ideas and the justice of our cause. (applause) And I believe - I believe this fight will lead to victory in this fall's election. My friends, the entire nation will be looking at us between now and November. Let's show them who we are because when I win, New York will win. Thank you all. God bless you.
IFILL: For more, we turn to Michael Tomasky, a columnist with the New
York Magazine; John Harris from the Washington Post; and
independent pollster Lee Miringoff, director of the Institute for Public
Policy at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
LEE MIRINGOFF, Marist Institute for Public Policy: Well, they have an energetic, enthusiastic candidate and given the whole period of will-Rudy-run or not-Rudy-run, this comes as a welcome relief to Republicans and being an underdog is realistic at this point. And certainly he wants to show that he's going to come from behind and overtake Hillary down the stretch. It's a way of trying to generate some attention to his candidacy, and it's, you know, not surprising. We saw that in the presidential race; everybody claimed the underdog status this near; no one wants to be a frontrunner.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Tomasky, it seems like the nomination was the easy part. Everybody agreed on that. Now what's the hard part?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, based on what I heard this afternoon in the speech I'd say that the main hard part is developing a message. The speech was - I think a little flat - and - you know - one thing that was really funny about it was that the issues that he talked about - education, healthcare, help for disabled people, help for seniors, and prescription drug costs and housing costs for working class people - these are exactly things Hillary Clinton has been talking about. I sometimes had to stop myself and wonder which party's convention I was at. It's kind of funny because when Giuliani dropped out of the race, people thought, well, this would become a more traditional Republican versus Democratic fight, but to me, Hillary Clinton sounds like Rick Lazio, and Rick Lazio sounds like her.
GWEN IFILL: Except that Michael he also made the effort of trying to make Hillary Clinton sound like a person who's going to be carrying the negative baggage in this campaign, the one who would be leading the attack.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: He did. I guess that was the most interesting thing about the speech, that left-wing causes thing that you quoted was one line, that your piece quoted, and then there was another one - excuse me - that had - you know - when he kept banging away on her not being a New Yorker and he went on sort of a preemptive strike about her use of Newt Gingrich, which to my hearing she's actually dropped. I haven't heard here mention Newt Gingrich in the last few days, but it was a way to try and insulate himself from the charge that he was - you know - too loyal to Newt Gingrich during the Republican takeover of Congress.
|The sunny disposition...|
GWEN IFILL: John Harris, you wrote quite extensively in the Washington Post this morning about the beginning of the Lazio candidacy. What is it about Rick Lazio that he has done in the past that prepares him for what he's undertaking now?
JOHN HARRIS: Well, anybody in Hillary Clinton's camp that thinks she's got a lucky break by running against Lazio versus Giuliani ought to go back to 1992, which was the year that Rick Lazio, the Suffolk County legislator, beat one of then the best known names among House Democrats, Tom Downey. And he did it with this sort of outwardly very chipper, kind of upbeat, energetic campaign similar to what we saw and yet the message was relentlessly negative. He went after Downey for bounced checks. Remember the bank scandal from that year? He went out and asked him for a congressional junket to the Caribbean. He proved to be a very, very tough candidate.
GWEN IFILL: So this talk today about being the one with the sunny disposition, the positive outlook, that's not necessarily something we should swallow whole?
JOHN HARRIS: -- by all accounts he's a very personable, amiable politician who likes to be liked and by and large is liked, but beneath that is a very shrewd, tough politician - at least at the level he's played it so far. We have not seen him play at the higher level. It was interesting the sort of the flat reviews that we got of his speech today reminds us that in terms of being on a national stage, Hillary Clinton, who's never run for office before, is the more experienced candidate. Lazio, who's got several elections under his belt, has never played at this level, so it's going to take a while.
GWEN IFILL: Yeah, go ahead, Lee.
LEE MIRINGOFF: I was just going to say I'm struck by Hillary Clinton having been the carpetbagger, the newcomer, now becomes, as John said, the veteran. She's been in 62 counties; she's been around the track in New York; and now he looks like the Johnny-come-lately, given the odd circumstances with which he came into this race. So we have a funny change here -and I think that's why Lazio suggested not just he's a New York but that he's sharing your values; she's an elitist; she has the Hollywood left wingers and he's not any part of that, and I think that's an attempt to get beyond just the carpetbagger issue and the question is, is he pitching it just to the forty or does that reach fifty percent and that's the big question.
GWEN IFILL: Who are the voters? You mentioned earlier that everybody wants to be an underdog. It seems like everybody also wants to be mainstream. Who are the New York voters that the two of them are going to be fighting over?
LEE MIRINGOFF: Well, I think what we see right now is a whole new group of voters are now in play in this race. Rudy Giuliani was tying down the suburbs. They've seen him; they liked him; and Hillary's really working upstate trying to dent Giuliani up there. Now with Lazio in the race it really changes the dynamic and we see suburbanites, women, Jewish voters much more up for grabs right now because Giuliani's lost that and now that's something that's going to be fought over between the two of them, so you have a much more traditional -as Michael would say -- in the beginning it will be more of a Democratic/Republican contest, albeit one where they both try to be in the middle and force their opponent out to the extremes.
|A stature gap|
GWEN IFILL: Michael Tomasky, you were talking about the quality of the speech a moment ago. Is there any question or any worry on the part of Republicans who are so excited about this Lazio candidacy that there's a stature gap that has to be closed between him and Mrs. Clinton, or are there any concerns on the Clinton side about the very same thing?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: I think both are true. Republicans are somewhat concerned about that question because it's as John said, you know, he hasn't played in the big time and subbing for Rudy Giuliani, it's like coming in off the bench for an injured Michael Jordan or something like that, so he does have to prove himself in that respect. I think on Hillary Clinton's side it's a situation for them that they have to address tenderly. You know, is Goliath supposed to come out and attack David, you know, which is what she is compared to him, at least in terms of celebrity and notoriety and so forth. So that stature gap question I think cuts both ways but Lazio clearly has to - you know - he has to sharpen what he's saying.
GWEN IFILL: John, we heard Rick Lazio talk today endlessly about I'm one of you. He raised the carpetbagger issue in every possible conceivable way. However, are there other issues in this race, which are going to be able to allow voters to define what's different between these two?
JOHN HARRIS: Well, that's the race at least in the early stages, and it's right now at the critical period. Michael said no difference when you hear them talk about the issues. Hillary Clinton is going to try to take her financial advantage early and say, oh, yes, there is an issue, look at all of Rick Lazio's votes. I think it's true they're not making the direct analogy to Newt Gingrich anymore; it wouldn't be credible. Rick Lazio is too different of a person. But they are trying to make him pay for votes he made when he was in Newt Gingrich's caucus. Rick Lazio - all things being equal - is a very moderate Long Island Republican. Between '95 and '96 when he was trying to move up the Republican House Caucus all things were not equal; he had to cast votes with the conservative majority. A lot of times they were anguished votes for him. Nonetheless, they were on record.
GWEN IFILL: Lee Miringoff, as Pat Moynihan said today, there's going to be a five-month fight for basically 10 percent of the vote, that it's going to be neck and neck like they see right now for a long time. Is that so, do you have research?
LEE MIRINGOFF: I think right now there's probably a few more voters and it's probably still up in the air - yet to be tied down. And I think we're going to see that right now it's a critical time for Rick Lazio; he's not that well known, and everything he does well today is magnified tenfold for him, and I think it's very important - where he positions himself and as John was just saying, Hillary Clinton's side is going to be trying to move him to the right and they're going to try to claim the center of the fairway, as is Lazio going to be trying to move Hillary to the far left and he's going to try to claim the center of the fairway. He's not that well known and everything is going to really count much more -- There is more than 10% on the table now. I suspect some of the recent polling was catching a short wave -- I think people are going to still suspend their judgment as they have now picked sides yet again.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, obviously both candidates are interested in defining each other. The Democrats, it's in their interest to nationalize the race, and say "we are running on Clinton's policy". And it's in the Republicans' interest to personalize the race and say we're running against Hillary. Which seems to be resonating with New York voters?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: It's too early to say that. I think. You know, one thing that might work in Hillary's favor that would work in any Democratic candidate's favor-- is that it's a presidential election year. In New York, barring really weird circumstances, the Democrat wins the presidential election. Al Gore will probably win New York, no matter how he does in the rest of the country, by at least a million votes. So that helps her there. But Lazio, I think, will, you know, he will turn more negative. One word that I didn't hear today at all was "abortion," which may become a bit of a tricky thing for him. He's more or less pro choice. He obviously didn't want to mention that today in front of a Republican ballroom but I suppose he's probably mostly pro-life or reasonably pro-life, but he is going to have to, I think-- to get those voters in the middle that we're talking about-- he is going to have to emphasize those votes he has cast, that have been pro-choice. That will be something he'll have to finesse.
GWEN IFILL: Is that a problem, John Harris? He has voted against federal funding for abortions for poor women, does that come back to haunt him in the New York race?
JOHN HARRIS: I doubt it, other than that Hillary Clinton will use it among activists as a fund- raising vehicle and among, to energize her base - say - look, don't let this guy pretend he's pro-choice, he's not. But I don't suspect abortion will probably be an important issue in the tug of war for the middle for 10 percent or 15 percent or whatever it is.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, Lee, Miringoff, you get to sum this up for us. Give us some sort of predictive idea about whether those voters are paying attention now, whether these candidates are sounding the right themes, and whether we're going to see a neck and neck race in the end.
LEE MIRINGOFF: Well, let me take the last part first. I think we are going to see a close race in the end, because although Hillary Clinton may have an advantage right now, she is not over 50%, she doesn't have a lock, by any means. Lazio is showing a lot of energy and has some enthusiasm, so I think we're going to see that kind of thing. It's been, for New Yorkers, just the oddest twists and turns along the way. One thing we have to watch for is the learning curve for Rick Lazio. He hasn't been around the track as a Senate candidate. Hillary made some blunders early on. We're going to be watching to see whether Lazio, when he gets out there, whether he can pass the stature gap that you were talking about and the learning curve which he needs to get past, he needs to get by it quickly and get on with the race.
GWEN IFILL: I'm afraid we're going to be twisting and turning with you. Lee Miringoff, Michael Tomasky, and John Harris, thank you all very much.