Giddy Pundits Ignore the Real Rick Lazio

The hurried replacement of Rudolph Giuliani with Rick Lazio brought a predictable response from New York’s political press corps. Disappointed by the Mayor’s decision to stand down and appalled by the notion that Hillary Clinton will waltz into the Senate without a nasty fight, the local punditry has declared Mr. Lazio a formidable contender.

That declaration may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The publicity afforded to the Long Island congressman following Mr. Giuliani’s dramatic withdrawal will surely help him to raise the funds needed to mount a serious campaign. Moreover, Mr. Lazio has already displayed impressive energy and the requisite determination to go negative, and he has attracted talented Republican operatives like Mike Murphy (formerly of the John McCain crusade) to his side.

But the sudden enthusiasm of certain commentators has led them to ignore a few persistent problems with the Lazio scenario and a few immutable facts about the contest he has now entered.

He will have all the money he needs. Following in the well-worn path of his neighbor and mentor Alfonse D’Amato, Mr. Lazio can no doubt raise millions from the finance, insurance and real estate companies that hope to gain his favor as a member of the House Banking Committee, as well as from conservatives around the country who want to burn the First Lady. Although she currently has a financial edge of at least $3 million over her presumed opponent, he may achieve parity with her around the $20 million mark. But will even that obscene amount really be “enough” for a Republican to win a statewide election in New York-against a Democrat who has just as much money?

Remember that Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by about three-to-two. And with that in mind, remember too that in every Senate race since 1980, Mr. D’Amato outspent his Democratic challenger by millions. In his first re-election bid, he spent six dollars for every dollar spent by Mark Green. Running against Robert Abrams in 1992, the incumbent had twice as much money and nearly lost anyway. Two years ago he faced Charles Schumer-whose astonishing outlay of $16 million was still eight million dollars behind his own-and suffered a landslide defeat.

So it seems entirely possible that in order to win, Mr. Lazio would need an overwhelming financial advantage like that once enjoyed by Mr. Giuliani. And that is an advantage he is unlikely to obtain at this point.

He is a moderate conservative who can attract Independents and Democrats. It’s true that Mr. Lazio has positioned himself on abortion to avoid the far-right label that afflicts other Republican conservatives. He has even won endorsements in past elections from national environmental organizations. But whenever he points to Mrs. Clinton’s 1994 mismanagement of the health care initiative, he will also have to answer for his five years of fealty to the Newt Gingrich gang in Congress. As House deputy whip, Mr. Lazio faithfully served both the former speaker and his actual successor, majority leader Dick Armey. These are not happy associations for most New Yorkers.

With a few hours of research, Mrs. Clinton’s aides compiled a long list of votes that will tarnish the “moderate” image cherished by Mr. Lazio. He has voted to cut education spending by billions, to eliminate the school lunch program, to reduce projected Medicare funding, to slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, and to oppose the patients’ bill of rights. Moderate is a blurry description, and what once seemed like extremism now passes for moderation. Whatever label he chooses, however, won’t necessarily excuse his voting record on those issues.

He will get the nomination of the Conservative Party and perhaps run on the Independence (Reform) line as well, which will deliver hundreds of thousands of additional votes. For a Republican running statewide, the Conservative line is less an unforeseen boon than a minimum requirement. Mr. D’Amato had that line in 1998 and lost big anyway. As for the internally divided Independence Party, its Senate nomination may turn out to be more curse than blessing if it nominates Patrick Buchanan for President. In fact, Mr. Lazio may have committed a serious error by saying he would run on the same line with that ultra-Right demagogue. (The same dubious honor was wisely declined by both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani.) Yet if the Republican doesn’t run on the Independence line or is denied the party’s nomination, he risks the possibility of a third candidate siphoning away some of the anti-Clinton vote.

The chief peril to Mrs. Clinton lies not in any of Mr. Lazio’s alleged qualities, but in her own new status as the front-runner. Five months before Election Day, with all the baggage she carries, that isn’t necessarily the best place to be.