Is Lazio Flopping? G.O.P. Candidate’s Gaining No Ground

Tanned and smiling after a short vacation in East Hampton, Rick Lazio kicked off the critical home stretch of his Senate campaign on Sept. 3 by plunging into a sea of affection amid the sandy cabanas of the Breezy Point Surf Club, whose members tend to be conservative white Catholics from places like Bay Ridge and Staten Island.

Led around the grounds by Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, Mr. Lazio spent about an hour accepting an almost embarrassing outpouring of adulation from the members, talking to ketchup-smeared children, playing a little bocce with the older crowd and acknowledging vocal suggestions from just about everyone to “send Hillary home.” (“Wherever home is for her,” he added as he signed an autograph.) After covering the cafeteria, bar and pool areas thoroughly enough to have greeted many of the clubgoers twice, Mr. Lazio stopped smiling just long enough to do a brief question-and-answer session with the sweaty press contingent before speeding off in a white Suburban to a nearby fund-raiser.

Rick Lazio looked awfully relaxed for a candidate trailing in the latest polls as his campaign enters its climactic two months. But there are signs that some Republicans are considerably more anxious about the direction of the Lazio campaign, raising questions both about his current strategy and about his desire to wage the grueling effort it will take to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Hillary has ground him to a halt,” said G.O.P. consultant Rick Wilson, a chief strategist of Rudolph Giuliani’s aborted Senate campaign. “He’s fallen into the exact dynamic that he shouldn’t be in with her.”

Another veteran consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was even less diplomatic about Mr. Lazio’s three-month-old effort. “It’s been Lazio’s race to lose,” the consultant said, “and he’s doing a great job of it.”

Some Republicans complain that Mr. Lazio has allowed himself to be drawn into a back-and-forth duel of negative television advertising with Mrs. Clinton, who has been running ads attacking Mr. Lazio’s Congressional voting record. Republicans note that Alfonse D’Amato engaged in such a battle against Charles Schumer in 1998, and wound up losing his bid for a fourth term. Nevertheless, the Lazio campaign persists in its reliance on negative television ads. Its current spot features the pointed tag line: “Hillary Clinton. You Just Can’t Trust Her.” Such expensive tactics tend to reward the better-funded candidate, who happens to be Mrs. Clinton-even Mr. Lazio’s amazing haul of $10.7 million in just two months hardly competes with the million of dollars that the Clintons raised in just one evening during the Democratic convention.

“If it comes down to this kind of war of attrition, it’s going to be awfully hard for Rick Lazio to beat someone like Hillary, who has unlimited money,” said Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island. “It seems like he’s on the defensive every day, and it just seems like he’s playing the game on her field.”

“If Lazio is a 12-gun frigate right now, then Hillary is a 24-gun ship with 12 pounders,” asserted top Republican fund-raiser James Ortenzio, alluding to Mrs. Clinton’s heavier war chest. “When they engage in this tit-for-tat, she has an awfully good chance of sinking him because of her superior firepower.”

Republicans also say that the onus is on Mr. Lazio to give the swing voters who dislike Mrs. Clinton, but remain unfamiliar with him, another reason to turn out and vote for him. “We already know that people hate Hillary,” observed Mr. Wilson. “They would run her down with a car if she were standing in the middle of the road. But you have to offer a positive strategy other than ‘I’m not Hillary.’ Simply exchanging negative ads is a loser.”

John Zogby, the Republican pollster whose latest offering shows Mrs. Clinton edging ahead of Mr. Lazio by a couple of points, sees a parallel in the 1994 race between George Pataki and then-Governor Mario Cuomo. “Pataki running as the ‘un-Cuomo’ worked up to a point, but Pataki almost blew it by staying with that for too long,” he explained. “When all is said and done, voters need a reason to vote for someone and not just against” their opponent.

Mr. Lazio’s allies dismissed criticism of their willingness to go toe to toe with Mrs. Clinton, portraying themselves as victims of the First Lady’s aggression. “It’s like blaming David for Goliath, or Roosevelt for World War II,” said campaign spokesman Dan McLagan. “She’s run a dozen consecutive, negative soft-money ads against Rick, and we’re responding. Not responding to attack ads is a [Michael] Dukakis strategy that doesn’t work.”

Another source of griping about the Lazio campaign has been that the candidate is not spending enough time campaigning in several areas, especially upstate, where Mrs. Clinton has been particularly active. While satisfying the demands for attention of countless local officials is impossible as a rule, it has been particularly difficult for Mr. Lazio to log the requisite number of miles because of his belated entry into the race. But Republicans, haunted by the memory of the tireless northern strategy executed so successfully by Mr. Schumer two years ago, remain acutely sensitive to the perils of being out-hustled in such crucial swing areas as Erie, Albany or Monroe counties, and seem to be running out of sympathy for their candidate.

According to party sources, there has been some low-level griping from members of the New York State Republican Committee about Mr. Lazio’s lack of presence upstate, where the Zogby poll showed the most significant erosion of Mr. Lazio’s support. And there has been no shortage of off-the-record complaining from county chairmen about the missing candidate.

In Mr. Lazio’s defense, some G.O.P. officials maintain that the Congressman is doing just fine upstate, and suggest that Mrs. Clinton’s omnipresence will backfire on her. “The perception is that [Mrs. Clinton] has been spending all this time up here, but that’s fine,” said Stephen Minarik, Republican chairman of Monroe County. “The intensity of the negative feeling up here toward her is unbelievable, certainly bigger than it ever was for Mario Cuomo,” who was defeated in 1994 thanks to a huge upstate vote for Mr. Pataki. “The more time Hillary Clinton spends in Monroe County,” Mr. Minarik concluded, “the less likely [it is] that anyone will vote for her.”

Other upstate Republicans, however, even the most sympathetic ones, are making it clear that they would like to see more of their candidate. “It’s hard when you have to be everywhere,” said upstate Assemblyman John Faso. “Every region is pulling on him, but I do hope he’ll be able to do more visible campaigning upstate. People here tend to expect that they get to touch and feel the candidates.”

Politics of Pork

Indeed, the days leading up to Labor Day weekend provided a good example of what upstate leaders might be concerned about. While Mr. Lazio was vacationing with his family on Long Island, President and Mrs. Clinton were at the annual state fair in Syracuse, making a great show of devouring the locally celebrated Gianelli’s sausage sandwich that Mr. Lazio had eschewed on an earlier visit. (Political historians may note that Mr. Schumer had pursued an eerily similar sausage strategy in 1998, when he won the hearts and minds of locals at Erie County’s Polish Festival by bringing his own links, from a Polish deli in Park Slope, to the annual sausage-tasting contest. Mr. Lazio, perhaps mindful of this precedent, returned to Syracuse on Sept. 4 to eat the sandwich.)

But there are several factors that may be keeping Mr. Lazio’s road show tied up in traffic. For one, many Republicans argue, Mr. Lazio has been obliged to cut down on public events to concentrate on private fund-raisers, an activity that Mrs. Clinton, who has been raising money for more than a year already, spends less time on. And if Mr. Lazio has maintained a schedule light on events that take him too far from his Suffolk County home, his closest allies say that it is merely a testament to one of his most formidable assets: his well-advertised dedication to his family.

“Even from the time I worked with him on [Capitol] Hill, it was always like, ‘Cross this day off, this is family day and I don’t want to hear about it; I’m not doing anything,'” recalled Assemblyman Phil Boyle, a top advisor to Mr. Lazio. “Rick is obviously family-centric, and absolutely plays a role in those scheduling decisions. Operatives that work on his campaigns learn-sometimes the hard way-that they need to take the Lazio family into consideration.”

During his visit to Breezy Point, Mr. Lazio dismissed suggestions that he wasn’t working hard enough. “We have been all over the state,” he explained. “People need to be reminded that I got into this race only three months ago. I haven’t had the luxury of an extra year to campaign.” He also pointed out that he had Congressional duties to attend to, making his schedule even busier.

On this particular weekend, though, Mr. Lazio was clearly happy to be exactly where he was, surrounded by an adoring crowd and just minutes by car from the westernmost reaches of the Southern State Parkway-the road back home. As he and his press contingent walked near the deep end of the pool at the Breezy Point club, a middle-aged man in a bathing cap called out from the water. “Hey, Rick!” he yelled, bobbing up and down. “You want my vote, you gotta dive in!”

Mr. Lazio played along, stepping toward the side of the pool and getting into a theatrical crouch before laughing and continuing his stroll.

A few steps away, a child asked him if he really was going to take the plunge.

“I would like to go in that big pool,” he answered. “Next year, I think.”