What Really Scares Rudy? It Could Be Rick Lazio, Secret Senate Favorite

Representative Rick Lazio made sure he was very deferential when he visited Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in City Hall not long ago. At the end of their formal meeting, the two Republicans sent their aides out of the room so they could have a private chat about their mutual interest in next year’s U.S. Senate race. “I said to him that I was going to be traveling around the state and exploring the possibility of a run,” said Mr. Lazio, smiling at the memory like a Cub Scout recalling a marshmallow roast. “He said … that he had no problem with it.”

Apparently, a few problems have developed since that meeting six months ago. Republican insiders increasingly see Mr. Lazio not as a nice, polite young man from Long Island, but as a potentially lethal threat to the Mayor’s political future. If Mr. Giuliani loses a hard-fought race against First Lady Hillary Clinton next year, he will live to fight another race. But if he loses to the relatively obscure Mr. Lazio in a Republican primary, he’ll be lucky if he gets a post-City Hall job as national spokesman for the Club.

And there are signs that the race is becoming a bare-knuckled affair. In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Lazio charged that Mr. Giuliani’s allies have threatened some of his supporters who have business before the city. “I think they’re used to hardball tactics over there,” Mr. Lazio said of Mr. Giuliani’s camp. “There are some people who have been supporters … of mine [who] do business with the City of New York. [They] have gotten some messages that they have perceived as being threatening.” Mr. Lazio refused to name the threatened supporters, and wouldn’t offer further details.

Many people regard Mr. Lazio as the Eddie Haskell of Long Island politics–boyish, pleasant, willing to kiss up to elders. But since his chat with the Mayor, Mr. Lazio has skillfully exploited Mr. Giuliani’s feuds with Gov. George Pataki and other powerful figures in the state Republican Party. Mr. Giuliani has no shortage of enemies, and Mr. Lazio wants to be friends with each and every one of them.

Mr. Lazio has yet to formally declare his candidacy. But there are clear signs that it’s a go. For instance, The Observer has learned, Mr. Lazio’s aides are seeking office space in Manhattan–an all but certain indication that Mr. Lazio is ready to run.

Mr. Lazio also confirmed that his campaign has discussed the possibility of hiring a noted opposition researcher and all-around political operative named Christopher Lyon. Mr. Lyon, wouldn’t you know, was political director of Mr. Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign–which, if nothing else, could mean that his filing cabinet is jammed with useful information about the Mayor.

“It’s sort of disconcerting that the Congressman has decided to go negative from the get-go,” said an ally of the Mayor. “Lyon is a clear sign that [Mr. Lazio] intends to fling dirt.”

As a matter of fact, in an interview with The Observer , Mr. Lazio offered his sharpest attack yet on Mr. Giuliani’s Senate ambitions.

“There are some accomplishments for which he can be justifiably proud as Mayor,” he said. “But I think for this position, he is a square peg in a round hole … This is just not right for him. I never felt as though this is a position he really wanted–outside of a temporary position to hang his hat while he searched for something more appropriate. The people of New York … don’t deserve to have somebody who just is seeking it for personal power or for a temporary perch.” (A spokesman for the Mayor’s campaign did not respond by press time.)

Mr. Lazio talked about the Mayor, and his own ambitions, after spending two hours inside a veterans hall in East Islip on a sweltering Sunday in mid-June. His chores, which he performed with appropriate candidate-in-waiting enthusiasm, included pinning medals on the chests of 50 septuagenarian D-Day survivors. In the hall’s bathroom, each toilet was tagged with its very own “Hanoi Jane Urinal Sticker” so the old soldiers could practice their marksmanship.

This is Mr. Lazio’s turf, a well-preserved piece of middle America in Suffolk County as far removed from the malls and tract developments of Nassau County as it is from Newtown Lane in East Hampton. The heart of his Congressional district is a string of south shore towns strung along Montauk Highway and lined with delis and boat dealerships.

Weed-Free Student

Mr. Lazio grew up in the district. He’s married, with two young daughters. He’s 41, but he doesn’t look much older than his 1976 West Islip High School yearbook photo (although he got rid of the Tony Orlando haircut). Back then, Rick Lazio used his given name: Enrico Lazio. In his only class candid shot, he is standing next to a friend, who is in drag. Mr. Lazio is wearing a blazer and a very uncomfortable expression.

“He definitely wasn’t the guy you bought weed from,” recalled Steve Lampasona, who went to junior high and high school with Mr. Lazio. “He and I struggled to keep an 85 average so we could stay in honors classes.”

The son of an auto parts dealer who went to Vassar College in upstate Poughkeepsie, Mr. Lazio is a more polished version of former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who rose to power 20 miles west, in Island Park. Like Mr. D’Amato, the Congressman worked his way up through the ranks of the Long Island machine, serving low-key stints as a county prosecutor and legislator.

And like Mr. D’Amato, Mr. Lazio made a sudden and successful grab for power by upsetting a well-funded, high-profile liberal. He defeated Representative Tom Downey of Amityville, an 18-year incumbent, in 1992 with a relentlessly negative campaign. He portrayed Mr. Downey as a complacent liberal, attacked him for a Caribbean junket and even targeted his wife for her role in the House check-bouncing “scandal.” One flier featured a photo of Mr. Downey tossing a football on a beach in Barbados. Another offered “Tom Downey’s limousine liberal guide to surviving the recession.”

Once in Congress, Mr. Lazio played the moderate to his home constituents, staking out middle-of-the-road pro-choice and pro-gun control positions. Meanwhile, in the halls of the Capitol, he maneuvered his way into the good graces of the conservative House leadership, rolling back New Deal housing legislation and voting for two articles of impeachment against President Clinton earlier this year.

“He personally says he’s moderate,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, “but as a guy trying to get ahead in the Republican Party, he makes peace with very right-wing elements.”

Watts Likes Him

It is a rule of thumb that the more conservative candidate invariably wins a Republican primary (see D’Amato, Alfonse, in 1980), and Mr. Lazio certainly would fit that description in a race against Mr. Giuliani. Indeed, Mr. Lazio has been pushing hard for the backing of state Conservative Party chair Michael Long–and Mr. Long has hinted broadly that he has a good shot at winning his support.

If Mr. Lazio loses to Mr. Giuliani in the Republican primary but has the Conservative endorsement in the general election, he would split the anti-Hillary Clinton vote, possibly dooming Mr. Giuliani’s chances. Meanwhile, the Representative already has the enthusiastic backing of Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and of American Conservative Union chief David Keene, who recently described him as “giant-killer of the year.”

It’s true that the giant has clear advantages. He may not be jolly, but he has a lot of green. While Mr. Lazio has $2.3 million in campaign cash, Mr. Giuliani raised a similar sum in one night. And a Quinnipiac College poll in May gave Mr. Giuliani 36 percent of registered Republican primary voters to Mr. Lazio’s 8 percent.

But here’s where it gets interesting. An astounding 86 percent of the state G.O.P. primary electorate comes from outside the five boroughs. Mr. Giuliani will win the city. But Mr. Lazio has a good shot at winning Long Island, his base. And that means the battleground will be upstate New York. Mr. Lazio has spent a great deal of time there lately, talking to many Republican voters who still recall Mr. Giuliani’s traitorous endorsement of a Democrat, Mario Cuomo, for governor in 1994.

But What About Pataki?

One of those voters, of course, is Mr. Pataki himself. Mr. Lazio has been diligently courting the Governor and his allies. Mr. Lazio has attached himself to the Governor and other Republican leaders, gladly following them to every ribbon-cutting ceremony and county committee dinner-dance he can, grinning and beaming and acting very much like a candidate in waiting.

Mr. Lazio, in fact, seems to recognize that his candidacy could turn on the backing of the Governor, who has the power to marshal Republican troops upstate. He has even told reporters he won’t run if Mr. Pataki asks him not to.

Not that Mr. Lazio believes the Governor will make such a request. “I certainly would not be getting into this race if I thought it was something that the Governor would be opposed to,” Mr. Lazio said, grinning again.

Would that Mr. Lazio’s relationship with Mr. D’Amato were so blissfully uncomplicated. Last year, Mr. D’Amato reportedly hurled a string of obscenities at Mr. Lazio after the upstart Congressman had the nerve to introduce a housing bill. Federal housing was one of Mr. D’Amato’s favorite issues, and he reportedly resented Mr. Lazio’s intrusion onto his turf.

Since Mr. D’Amato’s defeat, however, the would-be Senator and former Senator have had a few bury-the-hatchet chitchats. “They’ve made up and now they’re butt buddies,” noted one associate of Mr. Lazio.

But that doesn’t exactly constitute an endorsement from the still powerful Mr. D’Amato. One of the former Senator’s allies, Representative Peter King of neighboring Massapequa, has been threatening to play spoiler against Mr. Lazio by getting into the Senate race himself and slicing into Mr. Lazio’s Long Island turf.

For the moment, however, Mr. Lazio remains the choice candidate for Rudy-haters. Mr. Lazio may not be well known. And he may not have vanquished crime in New York City. But while Mr. Giuliani has a gift for turning his friends into blood enemies, Mr. Lazio has a knack for making pals of his former foes.

“What do you want me to tell you? Yes, he’s nice guy,” said Patrick Halpin, a Suffolk County Democrat who served as county executive in the late 1980′s, when Mr. Lazio was a county legislator.

Against Mr. Giuliani, nice may be the nastiest tactic of all.