Is Hillary Glowing? Lazio’s Performance Makes Many Wince

“We wanted to see how this whole soft-money thing shakes out,” said Kelli Conlin, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League of New York. “I actually got a letter from Rick Lazio demanding that the minute Hillary signs the pledge, we must cease and desist any electoral efforts on behalf of the candidate.”

As is known to anyone who watched, read or heard about the debate held in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 13, the “soft-money thing” to which Ms. Conlin referred was the specter of Representative Rick Lazio waving a piece of paper that he termed the “New York Freedom from Soft Money Pact” into the smilingly appalled face of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who declined to sign it. Mrs. Clinton refused to forego the use of unrestricted funds raised and spent by political parties as opposed to political candidates, unless and until Mr. Lazio provided proof that he had called off the well-funded independent-expenditure dogs braying on his behalf. Ever since, the moment has been hailed as one of the two when undecided voters, particularly women, could be heard sliding from “maybe” to “no” on the Laziometer. (The other moment, of course, was when moderator Tim Russert played clips of Mrs. Clinton on the Today Show , and Mr. Lazio, rather than hit a home run by playing the gentleman, struck out by playing the bully.)

But if it comes to fruition, what Ms. Conlin was hinting at is a hope of much greater importance to Team Hillary than the hope that women will remember Mr. Lazio as a fellow who doesn’t know how to treat a lady. The hope is that voters will get to know Mr. Lazio as a fellow who doesn’t know how to treat some women on the issue of choice.

Ms. Conlin said her organization will spend approximately $500,000 to identify, educate and turn out pro-choice female swing voters in the state’s suburban battlegrounds, particularly Mr. Lazio’s Long Island backyard. Such a statement is Mozart to the ears of Team Hillary, which, come to think of it, seems to be whistling a generally happy tune of late. Actually, theirs is a cautious, wisely wary song of optimism-so wary, in fact, that it might better be termed an absence of pessimism. Given the recalcitrant closeness of the race and the depth of her opponent’s pockets, it is, they well know, a tune that might fade out at any time. But to those who have grown accustomed to the dull, defensive buzz of the past year, which persisted even at times when the First Lady was doing quite well, it is definitely audible, even striking. Where Mr. Lazio’s Mainstream Express blares Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” the Hillary camp seems to be humming, ever so softly, an impromptu tune that goes something like: “God, she might actually win.” For all the talk of high negatives and low enthusiasm; her problem with Jewish voters and white women and male chauvinists; her hesitant campaign style, her unwieldy campaign staff, her ever-hungry campaign coffers, there do seem to be some blades of green grass peeking through the frozen tundra of a year below 50 percent. She still is a Democratic candidate, this still is a Democratic state, she might actually win.

“It has nothing to do with her,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It’s the Gore-Lieberman halo effect.” Well, perhaps one ought give her something for showing up and taking shots these past two years, but there is no minimizing the Gore-Lieberman-or rather, Gore-Lieberman halo -effect, which may at last have made New York safe for a Suha Arafat–smooching Democrat. “I endorse everything he just said,” Mrs. Clinton said during a recent visit she made with the Vice Presidential candidate to the Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented in Brooklyn. She was seconding Mr. Lieberman’s innocuous answer to an innocuous question from a young student, but also succinctly summarizing her campaign’s philosophy of outreach to Jewish New Yorkers.

The campaign seems, too, to be preening a bit, as if trying on a brand-new suit of cohesion, wearing a sense that, at last, the trains are running on time-or at least that the Washington dispatchers and the New York dispatchers finally have coordinated their timetables. While such contentment frequently grows from the very notion that the campaign will be ending in a matter of weeks and it may very well end victoriously, considerable credit is also given to the presence in New York of Patti Solis-Doyle, the First Lady’s longtime White House scheduler. Described as “sharp” both by those who mean the word as a compliment and those who do not, Ms. Solis-Doyle has been a functional part of the campaign from its inception, but became an official part of it just before the Democratic National Convention. Planted just outside the war room at the campaign headquarters on Seventh Avenue, Ms. Solis-Doyle enjoys the complete trust and confidence of the candidate, and therefore a level of participation in the campaign that a top official described as “total.”

Then there is the fact that Mrs. Clinton, being a Clinton, has, at least up until this point, been finding remarkably good fortune in her enemies. This fortune will persist as long as the Lazio campaign seems to be laboring under the belief that New York swing voters can be pounded into hating Mrs. Clinton. It was, ironically enough, at substantive points of the debate that Mr. Lazio came off best and Mrs. Clinton came off worst. Those substantive points emphatically did not include the one in which Mr. Lazio seemed eager to skate over the economic hardship of upstate New York, while Mrs. Clinton seemed eager to dive right into it. At that time, one could only wonder why the words “Mario Cuomo”-which remain, fairly or unfairly, synonymous with “economic blight” to many upstaters-failed to pass Mr. Lazio’s lips.

Run Silent, Run Deep

But in the debate, as throughout the campaign, what the First Lady does not say simply does not hurt her. Although there remain many serious questions as to this public-policy maven’s positions on matters of public policy, particularly as they relate to New York, it seems increasingly clear that she is never going to have to answer any of them. Indeed, the single most salient question of the debate was among the least remarked. “In 1993-94, you proposed a health care bill that was very controversial in this state,” Mr. Russert asked, as he called up a visual graphic quoting Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s verbally graphic concerns about the Clinton plan’s ramifications for teaching hospitals in New York. “Why did you propose cutting the number of doctors by 25 percent and the number of specialists by 50 percent?” The question pierced the heart of Mrs. Clinton’s record and her rationale, and she did not even try to answer it.

Likewise, at a press conference after the last of the four African-American churches in Queens that Mrs. Clinton visited on the morning of Sept. 17, a television reporter called her on the exceedingly relevant fact that, while Mr. Gore’s economic populism played very well in many parts of the country, it might pose a problem for a candidate running in a tightly contested race in New York, where a couple can earn $75,000 and still find themselves struggling. The reporter asked Mrs. Clinton what she would consider to be a middle-class income in the state of New York. “How do you define a wealthy family in New York: two parents and two kids; household income is what?”

If there is an official county flower in Cattaraugus, Mrs. Clinton could tell you what it is, where it comes from and how it grows. But the amount of money it takes for a working family to get by?

“I don’t think it’s useful to talk about that,” she said, before switching to a passage of her patter.

And why should she think it’s useful? She’s a Democratic candidate, it’s a Democratic state, she just might win …

(Although in attacking Mr. Lazio’s trillion-dollar tax scheme, the Clinton campaign ought to stop citing quite so insistently the conclusions of the Fiscal Policy Institute, which was founded in significant part, and is still funded in significant part, by the labor unions, such as Local 1199 and UNITE, which strongly support Mrs. Clinton.

Perhaps, above all, the Clinton camp’s happy tune is being whistled because of the sense that, in the end, moderate suburban women will come home to Hillary.

“It’s the Supreme Court, stupid.” That was the quote on the plastic shopping bags distributed by NARAL at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, and it is the root of the argument being given to women by pro-choice activists in New York, by way of convincing them that Mr. Lazio has no business labeling himself pro-choice while linking himself to a Presidential candidate who counts Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas among his Supreme Court favorites. It has to be the root of the argument: Pro-choice advocates cannot hammer too hard on the fact that Mr. Lazio opposes late-term abortion, because Mr. Moynihan, among other prominent Democrats, does the same. And they cannot hammer too hard on the fact that Mr. Lazio supports such restrictions as parental notification for minors seeking abortions, because although Mrs. Clinton does not acknowledge it, she also has done the same. So they will be hitting on the Supreme Court, and they will be hitting it hard.

Lazio’s Shadows

When pro-choice protesters shadow Mr. Lazio on the campaign trail-or “bird-dog” him, as Ms. Conlin put it-they carry a sign that features a large black-and-red question mark and the question “Would you oppose anti-choice judges?” This was also the gist of an ad, produced by Mr. Sheinkopf, that constituted a modest, $50,000 cable-TV ad buy made in July and targeted to Long Island, and it will be the gist of more ads to come, presuming that no soft-money deal is struck (a safe presumption). It will be the gist as well of telephone calls to multitudes of women identified in the past 10 months. “In the next six weeks … we’ll be making tens of thousands of phone calls,” said Robert Jaffe, deputy director of NARAL New York. Those phone calls, in turn, will be the product of phone calls that the organization started making in February, off lists (purchased from Prime New York) of independent and Republican women, aged 24 to 49.

“We don’t ask the Hillary-or-Rick question,” said Mr. Jaffe. Instead, voters-contacted in part by volunteers and in part by a telemarketing firm called Telefund-have been asked whether they are supporting Vice President Al Gore or Governor George W. Bush. They have then been asked whether they consider themselves to be pro-choice. If not, the call ends. If so, the call continues, and if the voter indicates that she grants some considerable weight to the issue in the voting booth, she is in for major follow-up in the form of direct mail and more calls.

Not that they’re doing all this for Hillary. Indeed, in this case, the pro forma independent-expenditure-outfit’s plea of non-cooperation with a specific campaign actually has the ring of truth: the NARAL New York effort began when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was still in the race, and the organization had no plans to make an endorsement in the U.S. Senate race but did hope to affect local races, at least in the long term. “This is a project that will bear fruit over a long period of time,” said Manhattan State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who depicted the effort as the pro-choice movement’s attempt to make of its constituency the multi-purpose battering ram that the National Rifle Association has so effectively made of its own. “Once they find someone who’s with them on their issue, they don’t let them go.”

In the short term, though, there is one major beneficiary of all this independence, and she’s definitely a Democrat.

On a recent weekend morning, a Lazio campaign plane was to swoop over the beaches of Long Island. NARAL New York had planned to tag right behind it, with a plane tailed by the message: “Beware: Rick Lazio is not pro-choice.”

Both planes were grounded due to inclement weather. But before the election, they will no doubt be going right back up again.