Lazio’s Last Month: The Clock Ticking, He Goes Positive

Rick Lazio withdrew a folded campaign flyer from his pocket as he sat on a stage alongside the grand marshal of the Korean Day fair on West 32nd Street on Oct. 1. A speaker entertained the crowd in a mixture of Korean and English, but Mr. Lazio’s attention was focused on the flyer, which contained the Korean phrase he was about to attempt. His mouth moved as he practiced his pronunciation.

“Please welcome Mr. Lazio!” the grand marshal shouted into a microphone, jolting the Congressman to attention. “Give him big warm hands!”

Mr. Lazio stood up and grinned. He clasped the mike. Then he delivered his line:

” Ang yung heseyo .”

The crowd cheered in recognition of Mr. Lazio’s attempt at a Korean greeting. The hard part over, Mr. Lazio slipped into his standard stump speech, shook a few hands and left.

Four months after New York Republicans turned to Mr. Lazio as the G.O.P.’s best shot at defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Congressman has yet to materialize into the fearsome Hillary-slayer they envisioned. He is trailing in the polls; he holds only a small lead in the traditional Republican stronghold of upstate New York; the suburban mothers and moderate Jewish voters that were supposed to desert Mrs. Clinton seem to be warming to her; and Mr. Lazio has been ridiculed as everything from a busboy to a used car salesman. Meanwhile, his campaign has been buffeted by a roar of conflicting and self-contradictory advice: He should attack her more, but stop invading her space. He has to raise more money, but stop spending so much time fund-raising. He has to energize his languishing conservative base, but reach out to moderate swing voters.

Despite the grim tidings in most polls, Mr. Lazio’s advisers insist that they have an endgame in place that will confound the critics and produce a stunning victory over the First Lady. In fact, the outlines of that strategy are already taking shape. For one thing, the Lazio team will use surrogates to step up assaults on Mrs. Clinton, even as Mr. Lazio’s speeches and ads are carefully purged of attacks. And his aides insist that Mr. Lazio will soon reap the dividends of the agreement to ban soft money from the race. The deal was derided as a flop for its failure to resonate with voters, but Mr. Lazio’s advisers maintain that it has laid the groundwork for the campaign’s finale.

Most immediately, the ban has forced Mrs. Clinton to stop pounding the Congressman with soft-money ads upstate, where he desperately needs to gain ground. By erasing her soft-money advantage, the deal has freed him from fund-raising chores, giving him time to mount a final campaign push in upstate swing areas like Buffalo, Rochester and Albany. And it left him with a financial advantage in hard money, allowing for a last barrage of ads touting specific accomplishments in Congress.

“To date, Rick has spent a little too much time defending himself and not enough time talking about who he is and what he’s done,” said Phil Boyle, an Assemblyman from Islip, Long Island, who is a friend and close adviser of Mr. Lazio.

Some Republicans believe Mr. Lazio has finally begun to do just that in a new 30-second ad that began airing on the weekend of Sept. 29. The ad features two disabled people talking about a Lazio-authored law allowing disabled people to work without losing their government benefits. Republicans say it will serve as a model for future commercials that will bring Mr. Lazio to life as a compassionate and competent legislator.

“I really liked that commercial,” said Kieran Mahoney, a top strategist for Governor George Pataki. “It relates a number of important items. One, Rick Lazio has already done stuff that’s good for you-he’s running on a record, not a promise. And two, the other camp has attempted to portray him as some right-wing Gingrich clone. But the Gingrich crowd doesn’t pass these kinds of bills.”

Mr. Mahoney advised more of the same. “What I would do is go out [emphasizing] the positive stuff that Lazio has done that’s … [not] what you expect from a Republican.”

Even as Mr. Lazio’s ads have become light and cheery, female surrogates will do the dirty work of invading Mrs. Clinton’s space. On Oct. 2, Upstate Representative Sue Kelly and Lieutenant Governor Mary Donohue condemned Mrs. Clinton for accepting a campaign donation from a producer of “disgusting and violent” rap music.

The question, though, is whether the Lazio campaign has waited too long to enlist such surrogates. According to a Republican operative who worked on Mr. Pataki’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign, the frequent and early use of aggressive surrogates was a key to their victorious strategy in Mr. Pataki’s defeat of Mario Cuomo.

“Early on, we had a guy whose only job was to set up surrogates all over the state to sing the same song,” the operative said. “In each major market around the state, we had the same message being spun. I don’t see that happening here yet. They should be bringing in more women to go after Hillary Clinton.”

As for Mr. Lazio’s upstate problem, his advisers concede that his late entry into the race, as well as his need to raise money in a hurry, prevented him from building strong support in traditionally Republican territory. But in the last month of the race, they say, he will commit massive time and resources to upstate-an endgame strategy used successfully in Alfonse D’Amato’s dramatic come-from-behind win over Robert Abrams in 1992, as well as in Senator Charles Schumer’s victory over Mr. D’Amato in 1998.

“In the last 12 days of 1992, D’Amato was in Rochester around five times, in Utica four times, in Binghamton three or four times,” said pollster John Zogby. “He spent all of his time upstate and he won by one percent. Today, Lazio leads upstate by about seven points, and 10 is the benchmark for a Republican. So he has to be there the whole time.”

For all the technical talk of polls and surrogates, however, some of Mr. Lazio’s disadvantages may prove intractable. Mr. Lazio did everything asked of him by the pundits in the first debate, confronting Mrs. Clinton and proving himself capable of holding his own in a debate. But no matter what he does, he seems like he’s been permanently pigeonholed as a fast-talking, eager upstart: Eddie Haskell meets the West Islip High School debating team. His appearance on Meet the Press on Oct. 1-during which he rapidly blurted out his lines, as if frightened of being cut off by host Tim Russert-doesn’t bode well for his performance in the next debate.

What’s more, it may prove extremely difficult for Mr. Lazio to make up the ground Mrs. Clinton has gained upstate-simply because she has spent a year campaigning there. One recent poll showed Mrs. Clinton virtually even with Mr. Lazio upstate, numbers that represent a virtual death knell for a statewide Republican candidate.

Finally, Mr. Lazio has yet to do what Mr. Pataki did in 1994. While Mr. Lazio has been able to position himself as the anti-Hillary in terms of personality-affable local boy versus haughty carpetbagging queen-he has yet to draw a stark contrast on a particular issue. Mr. Pataki rode to victory by portraying himself as a tax-cutting, budget-cutting conservative who would get the state’s economy moving again. It has long been a point of pride for Mr. Lazio that he is non-ideological, that he compromises, that he’s cautious, that he can’t be defined in narrow, partisan terms. But one voter’s conciliator is another voter’s enigma.

“George Pataki sent a clear message: He stood for everything that Cuomo stood against,” the Pataki operative said. “No matter what the question was, he would answer, ‘I’ll cut taxes, cut spending and restore the death penalty.’ People understood that. It doesn’t seem as if Rick Lazio has a campaign mantra.”