Lazio’s Poll Rise: Like Al’s ’98 Win?

With his anointment as the Republican Party’s official nominee to succeed Daniel Patrick Moynihan as U.S. Senator, Rick Lazio is enjoying a flood of favorable publicity from the media organs most determined to assist him. Conservatives who just weeks ago despaired of defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton are now taking solace in a recent poll that shows Mr. Lazio virtually tied with the Democratic nominee.

The Zogby International survey published by the New York Post in late May showed the Republican candidate leaping from a position almost 15 points behind Mrs. Clinton to a statistical dead heat within a space of fewer than five days. G.O.P. contributors who might have given up on the New York Senate race after Rudolph Giuliani dropped out were thus encouraged to reopen their checkbooks in the hope of defeating the woman who is alternately depicted in the pages of the Post as Lady Macbeth and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Maybe the Senate race truly is as close as the Post poll now suggests. Or perhaps that particular poll is more accurate in discerning the wishes of Post readers than in measuring the preferences of likely voters-as was clearly the case when Zogby International, the opinion mavens of the Murdoch media empire, was asked to predict astatewideNew York race in the first week of November 1998.

Alone among the polling firms that were then tracking the horse race between challenger Charles Schumer and three-term incumbent Alfonse D’Amato, Zogby picked the latter to win. But Mr. Schumer did not simply prevail by a few points; he routed the Republican in a historic landslide.

So as television pundits hailed the significance of the latest Zogby prognostication, they might have considered adding a footnote concerning the Post pollster’s last attempt to foretell the outcome of a statewide election in New York. Of course, that fiasco occurred two years ago in a very different contest. And there is no evidence that the experts at Zogby “cook” their data. A spokesman staunchly denied any ideological bias, noting that the company is “independent and can poll for anybody.”

No doubt Zogby strives for scientific objectivity. But the Utica-based firm is financially dependent not only upon the Clinton-hating fanatics at News Corp., which encompasses the Post and Fox News, but on various other patrons who would rejoice in a Lazio victory. On the firm’s roster, for example, are tobacco giant Philip Morris and the corporate lobbyists at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Currently more intriguing is Zogby’s relationship with “the Club for Growth,” a lavishly funded political action group that is currently targeting Republican moderates who don’t tilt far enough to the right on economic issues. Headquartered in the Beltway, the club is dominated by wealthy and strongly committed New York conservatives such as investor Richard Gilder, economist (and television commentator) Lawrence Kudlow, and Thomas L. (Dusty) Rhodes, the president of National Review magazine; all of whom would find a Clinton victory appalling. Its press relations have been handled by Craig Shirley & Associates-another fixture of the far right that also happens to be deeply involved in “independent expenditure” maneuvering against Mrs. Clinton.

If other polls confirm the recent Zogby result, that would be considerably worse news for the Democrats, because such findings would indicate the existence of an anybody-but-Hillary voting bloc of 40 percent or more. At this point in the campaign, after all, Mr. Lazio is no more than an inoffensive mannequin from the suburbs, a smiling place holder pulled up from the ranks to replace the Mayor.

A few clues about who Mr. Lazio really is appeared in Newsday , the excellent newspaper that serves his home district, on May 28. According to an analysis prepared by Newsday ‘s Washington bureau, Mr. Lazio began his career on Capitol Hill as one of the Clinton administration’s dozen most reliable Republican supporters. Facing his first reelection campaign in 1994, he sided with the White House on nearly three out of every four important votes. Only when Republicans took control of the House in 1995 did he begin to take cues from Newt Gingrich rather than Bill Clinton. A Newsday editorial-which uses the term “muddy” more than once to describe the congressman’s record-notes that his loyalty to House Republican extremists has been “bad for government” but “very, very good for Lazio.”

Elsewhere, however, Mr. Lazio has enjoyed the kind of superficial treatment that is unhappily reminiscent of an election two decades ago, when another obscure Long Island pol was seeking to elevate himself to the Senate. Back in 1980, few media outlets aside from Newsday and the Village Voice delved into the details of Al D’Amato’s “public service” in Nassau County. That dereliction shouldn’t be repeated this year.