Will Lazio’s New Jihad Make a Martyr of Hillary?

Rick Lazio, grinning, crouched to embrace a group of children at an elementary school in Rochester, N.Y., the morning after his first debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Thank you very much for all these hugs,” he exclaimed. “I love the hugs! It makes me feel great! I love you! I love you all! I’m getting all kinds of hugs today. Any more hugs? Thank you very much for these hugs. I’ll be back soon. You guys work hard in school, O.K.? You guys do well in school, you can have any job you want. Any job, O.K.?”

He strode out of the school, hand-in-hand with a little boy.

Later that day, Mr. Lazio clambered onto a wooden picnic table before a crowd of supporters in Fulton, N.Y., a depressed industrial town. With about a hundred restive locals buzzing about his feisty debate performance, Mr. Lazio spoke gravely about his opponent’s out-of-state roots. He assailed her “hypocrisy” on soft money. The time had come, he yelled, to “fire back.”

“The campaign really started yesterday–last night!” he declared.

Mr. Lazio’s transformation, in just several hours, from simpering guidance counselor to savage orator mirrored the metamorphosis in his campaign. By sharpening his attacks on Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Lazio hopes to dispel the perception that he is running a relaxed and ineffectual campaign.

While his more energetic pose has delighted core supporters, Mr. Lazio’s top advisors are worried that the new strategy carries a grave risk–one that could cost him the election. They are afraid that Mr. Lazio’s newfound aggression will allow Mrs. Clinton to slip into a role she has played to great effect in the past: Hillary the Martyr.

“I don’t know if it’s a role she plays or whether it’s just the way the electorate perceives her,” said Assemblyman Phil Boyle, a longtime friend and close advisor to Mr. Lazio. “Certain attacks on her evoke sympathy, and we need to be wary of that.”

“It’s a morality play,” added Kieran Mahoney, a top strategist for Governor George Pataki. “[Mrs. Clinton’s] strategy in a nutshell is to duck all criticism, legitimate or otherwise, by painting herself as somebody whom evil forces want to stop because of all the good she will do.”

Mr. Lazio’s advisers are well aware that Mrs. Clinton has ensnared many Republicans in this trap before. When the First Lady is attacked, she rises in the polls; voters stop viewing her as an ambitious opportunist and start seeing her as an aggrieved and noble victim. It was this dynamic that gave rise to her candidacy in the first place–she was proposed as a candidate after she stood by her cheating husband during the impeachment crisis and was roundly assailed by Republican critics.

The Lazio campaign already has reason for concern. Their vigorous assaults on Mrs. Clinton are re-awakening sympathies had vanished once she became a carpetbagging candidate for Senate. Since the debate, polls have shown that some undecided voters–including those who dislike the First Lady–disapproved of Mr. Lazio’s sharp assaults and now are drifting in her direction.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for one, was fully aware of the perils of running against Hillary the Martyr. When Mr. Giuliani was gearing up to run against Mrs. Clinton in 1999, his top advisers–including Adam Goodman, his media adviser, and Rick Wilson, his chief strategist–spent a year studying the First Lady’s career and compiled a detailed analysis of the roles she had played in politics through the years. Frank Luntz, Mr. Giuliani’s pollster, convened focus groups in part to gauge how these various political personas were received in Mrs. Clinton’s new home state.

“She plays different roles,” said Mr. Wilson. “She plays the national scold, which is always ‘You’re not spending enough money on my cause du jour .’ She plays the smartest woman in America, often articulated as ‘I spent 30 years studying.…’ She plays the schoolmarm–’My motives are much more pure than anyone else’s.’ But in the wake of Lewinsky scandal, she saw how personal martyrdom led to political empowerment.”

An Invisible Shield?

In Mr. Wilson’s view, it is the martyr role that holds the greatest peril for her opponent. “A reason she’s running for Senate right now is because she was wronged by us evil Republicans in 1999, and there was a belief among her advisers that her martyr role had erected an invisible shield around her,” he said. “They thought no one could ever go negative on her.”

Mrs. Clinton’s skill at morphing into a sympathetic character is clearly a source of frustration to Mr. Lazio’s supporters. “Lazio treats her as an equal, and now everyone suddenly complains that he was too hard on her,” griped Michael Long, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party, which endorsed Mr. Lazio. “I think he has to watch out for it.”

The dynamic was apparent in the press room during the Buffalo debate. Mr. Lazio’s advisers had hoped that news accounts of the debate would be dominated by Mr. Lazio’s soft-money challenge. In the press room, that moment was greeted by a sudden burst of keyboard clattering, as reporters chronicled the unexpected gesture even while grumbling that it was a “stunt.” But a similarly deafening clatter greeted another moment: when debate moderator Tim Russert aired pictures of a drawn and exhausted Mrs. Clinton defending her husband at the height of the Lewinsky scandal.

What’s more, some viewers were put off when Mr. Lazio left his podium and walked toward Mrs. Clinton, a gesture that took away from the substance of the Congressman’s argument.

Still, there’s no question that other voters were delighted to see someone–in this case, Mr. Lazio–stick it to Hillary. Take, for instance, Mr. Lazio’s campaign stop at a farm in upstate Madison County, where he addressed some 50 dairy farmers perched on bales of hay. Taking questions from some of the locals who had gathered to wish him well, Mr. Lazio answered haltingly on questions about genetic modification of crops (“I’m … I’m still learning about that”) and tax-exempt status for American Indian-owned businesses (“I’m not sure I have a solution for you on that. How about we’ll talk more about it later?”). When a local Republican tried helpfully to restart the dialogue by asking when the next debate was, Mr. Lazio turned beseechingly to a nearby aide.

“It looks like our farmers have gone silent on us,” said Mike St. Leger, the Madison County G.O.P. chairman, looking out at the stolid gathering.

Harvesting Votes

But when Mr. Lazio brought up the debate, the crowd came alive–and so did Mr. Lazio. He told the locals he was appalled by the idea that someone from Arkansas, Chicago and, worst of all, Washington wanted to represent them. He told them how “fearsome loyal” he was to New York.

“I don’t see anyone from Washington working out here on these farms,” Mr. Lazio observed, before basking in a hearty round of handshakes and backslaps.

All this campaign-trail energy has Mr. Lazio’s aides confidently predicting that he’ll be able to avoid the Hillary-as-martyr snare. “It won’t be easy for Mrs. Clinton to fall back into the role of victim this time,” said one senior adviser to Mr. Lazio. “You know we won the debate when the other side is complaining how tough Rick Lazio was. It’s like the losing team complaining that the other team ran up the score.”

For his part, Mr. Lazio dismisses the idea of a backlash to his Hillary-bashing. “Since the debate,” Mr. Lazio told the New York Daily News , “we have seen I don’t know how many thousands of people, and we haven’t had one person say anything to me about that.”

Except, of course, for the little girl in the Rochester elementary school who complicated a picture-perfect press opportunity by asking why he had been “fighting with Mrs. Clinton” at the debate, or the high school student on Long Island who asked him the next day to explain why he was “defensive and negative” that night in Buffalo. And Mr. Lazio’s question-and-answer sessions with the press since the debate have been dominated by questions about whether or not he has been too “mean” to Mrs. Clinton. (“I think New Yorkers want someone in the Senate who is a fighter” is the most frequent answer.)

“What Lazio is trying to do is establish that he’s really macho man,” said former Mayor Ed Koch, a supporter of Mrs. Clinton. “He confuses gravitas with machismo. But gravitas relates to thoughtfulness and substance. He’s not coming across as thoughtful or substantive. He’s not a bad guy at all. He’s a nice guy, but the way he’s thrashing about, he comes across as juvenile.”