Lazio Campaign Chief Defending Himself As Advisers Snipe

When Mike Murphy came to New York last spring to take charge of Rick Lazio’s Senate campaign, the state Republican establishment was immediately suspicious. He was a self-styled renegade consulting genius–long hair, hipster glasses, “GO NEG” vanity license plates. He was the force behind insurgent Presidential candidate John McCain, who lampooned Governor George Pataki as “Comrade Pataki” for trying to keep him off the primary ballot. Many New York Republicans–especially those excluded from the Lazio campaign–saw him as a brash interloper, a wisecracking grandstander more concerned with his own image than that of the candidate.

Now Mr. Murphy’s act has begun to wear thin for some people within Mr. Lazio’s campaign, attracting criticism from some of the Congressman’s senior advisers. They say that Mr. Murphy’s early ads failed to reach crucial swing voters, forcing a belated shift in tactics. Other Republicans say that Mr. Murphy’s style has caused tensions between him and other top campaign staff, including campaign manager Bill Dal Col–an assertion vigorously denied by both men. And some senior advisers are dismayed by the tone of some of Mr. Murphy’s recent public responses to criticism–comments which risk antagonizing the Republican Party faithful responsible for the political spadework that is crucial in statewide campaigns. (“We’re going to take the grumps to school on how to win a campaign in New York,” Mr. Murphy said recently of his Republican critics.)

“There’s dissatisfaction with his becoming an issue in the campaign and not staying behind the scenes,” said one of Mr. Lazio’s senior advisers. “The voters don’t care, but the party regulars do.”

Mr. Dal Col, the strategist who ran Steve Forbes’ 2000 Presidential campaign, was far more tactful when asked about Mr. Murphy’s tone of late. “Mike had to defend himself,” Mr. Dal Col said. But, he added, “you prefer not to have [negative comments]. Anybody quoted should follow your mother’s old adage–if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.”

In an interview, Mr. Murphy was unrepentant about his very public dealings with critics. “I am not at all shy or apologetic about telling whiners to get back to work,” he said. “I’ve got no use for them. We haven’t had time for all the cheap party diplomacy you see in campaigns.”

Mr. Murphy continued: “There’s a handful of people on the sidelines who seem to have more time to grouse than to help. Last time I saw, these same people had Chuck Schumer’s footprints all over their asses.”

Such talk seems almost deliberately calculated to anger the people who control the New York Republican machine, which suffered a humiliating defeat when Mr. Schumer crushed Alfonse D’Amato in the 1998 Senate race. In recent weeks, allies of Governor Pataki, along with others in the state Republican establishment, have criticized Mr. Murphy’s management of Mr. Lazio’s media campaign. Mr. Murphy’s aggressive responses to that criticism–standard fare in New York campaigns–in turn has angered some of Mr. Lazio’s senior advisers, who see such sniping as counterproductive.

“It’s the party faithful in the end who are going to get out the vote,” said a Lazio adviser. “The commercials, in the end, will not drive the crowds.”

If Mr. Dal Col is upset about Mr. Murphy’s highly visible role, he isn’t letting on. “There’s only one star,” Mr. Dal Col said. “His name is Congressman Rick Lazio.… The purpose of this campaign is not to create the next [James] Carville or [Mary] Matalin.”

But according to top Republicans, Mr. Dal Col has privately complained about Mr. Murphy on other grounds. Many of Mr. Lazio’s supporters criticized Mr. Murphy’s attempt to make soft money an issue in the campaign, a move which turned out to be a moral victory, but one that failed to resonate with voters. They saw it as an effort by Mr. Murphy to relive the glory of Mr. McCain’s campaign. According to Scott Reed, a friend of Mr. Dal Col and a top Republican strategist, many within the Lazio campaign share that view.

“Dal Col has commented that some of the outsiders on Lazio’s campaign are constantly trying to relive their last race,” Mr. Reed said.

Mr. Dal Col denied making any such comment to Mr. Reed. “I’ve not talked to anyone in Washington in relation to this race, because it’s a New York race,” he said.

Mr. Dal Col also dismissed the notion of tension between him and Mr. Murphy. In an interview, he stressed his admiration for Mr. Murphy, insisting that the campaign had worked out its glitches and was on track. He noted that the soft-money maneuver was a tactical victory that had erased Mrs. Clinton’s financial advantage, forcing her to stop running some negative ads upstate, where Mr. Lazio hopes to make big gains in the final weeks of the campaign.

But much of the talk of division may be unavoidable, stemming from the fact that Mr. Murphy, an outsider, was chosen over New York’s established Republicans. Mr. Murphy was seen as a risk-taker whose taste for incendiary ads has landed candidates in controversy. He had been described as everything from an “evil genius” to “dangerous.”

He also arrived in New York with a reputation for casting himself as the star of his campaigns–sometimes overshadowing the candidate. Just after he finished his work on behalf of Mr. McCain, it was revealed that he had been secretly sharing inside-the-campaign color with Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz for six months, on the understanding that Mr. Kurtz would use the material only after the McCain campaign came to an end.

“Nobody knew that he had been leaking to Kurtz for six months,” said Rick Davis, the manager of the McCain campaign, who is said to have feuded with Mr. Murphy. “I think people were disappointed that they weren’t told about that.”

The campaign roster is also unusually factionalized, even by New York standards. Soon after Mr. Murphy took over the Lazio effort, he brought in some of his allies from previous campaigns, including campaign spokesmen Dan McLagan and Bryan Flood. Other groups vying for influence in the campaign include people close to Governor Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and people who have been close to Mr. Lazio since he first ran for Congress in Islip, Long Island, in 1992.

Many Republicans predicted tension between the various factions–particularly since Mr. Murphy and Mr. Dal Col have vastly different approaches to campaigns. Where Mr. Murphy goes out of his way to be spontaneous and surprising, Mr. Dal Col’s reputation is that of a more businesslike and calculating manager.

“Dal Col is a technocrat, a campaign mechanic,” said Rick Wilson, a strategist for Mr. Giuliani’s aborted Senate campaign. “Murphy is an ideas guy–a field general who thinks out of the box. There’s a lot of ego on the line here, for Murphy and everyone else.”

Including the candidate, who has a race to win and can ill afford any more missteps. According to one senior adviser, Mr. Murphy’s early ads were overly focused on riling up the Congressman’s Republican base and failed to reach out to crucial swing voters. The senior adviser said that the campaign failed early on to build an image of Mr. Lazio as a moderate Republican with substantial accomplishments. As a result, the adviser said, the campaign had to “make some adjustments.” In recent weeks, Mr. Lazio’s ads have emphasized his moderate voting record and his accomplishments in Congress.

“We’ve turned the corner to win this race,” the senior adviser said. “We’ve directed our message more toward key voting blocs. We initially spoke to our base, and now we’re speaking to the swing voters.”

Ad Wars

Another adviser blamed Mr. Murphy for one of Mr. Lazio’s key advertising mistakes. Mr. Lazio seemed to have won a moral victory over Mrs. Clinton by proposing and instituting a ban on all television and radio advertising paid for by “outside groups.” But then, inexplicably, a Lazio ad appeared with a tagline indicating that the Republican National Committee had helped pay for air time. After a public scolding from the Clinton campaign, Mr. Lazio took down the ad and refunded the R.N.C.’s money.

“It should never have become an issue,” the adviser said. “Murphy was dealing with the financing for all these ads.”

Despite these problems, Mr. Lazio’s aides say that they have an endgame in place that will confound the critics. “We had a guy shot out of a cannon,” Mr. Dal Col said, talking about Mr. Lazio’s late entry into the race. He said the campaign operation had been tightened up and was in good shape going into the final three weeks before Election Day. He noted the candidate is free of fund-raising chores and has the time to campaign extensively upstate and in other crucial areas where he hopes to make the gains that will win him the election.

As for Mr. Murphy, he is confident that all talk of internal strife is so much hogwash. “Write this down: We’re winning,” he said. “See you on Election Day.”