Lazio’s Inner Team Starting to Believe It’s Anybody’s Race

A cheer arose from several hundred Republican men, women and children gathered at an outdoor rally in the quiet upstate town of Cortland, N.Y., on Halloween. The doors of the Mainstream Express opened, and a grinning face descended from the bus. It was Rick Lazio, underdog candidate for U.S. Senate.

As an aide struggled to clear a path for Mr. Lazio through the thicket of well-wishers, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blared from two huge loudspeakers. Mr. Lazio bounded up onstage and grabbed a microphone.

“What this crowd needs is more enthusiasm!”

The crowd roared.

“Are we gonna win this?”

More cheers.

“So we’re gonna win, right?” Louder cheers.

“Are we sure about this one? Are we sure? Well, I’m pretty sure about it, the more I see this!”

Mr. Lazio then plunged into a standard stump speech, deriding Hillary Clinton in simple phrases that would induce snickers from the downstate media. But these crowds didn’t seem to care about the preoccupations of city-based pundits, who worry about Mr. Lazio’s “stature” and “gravitas.”

According to the experts, Mr. Lazio hasn’t built enough support up in these parts, while Mrs. Clinton has visited all 62 counties. They said she brilliantly made upstaters feel comfortable with her flat inflections and steady manner over the last year and a half.

But the dynamics of this strange race are such that Mr. Lazio could still erase her long months of work upstate with a last-ditch campaign swing. On Halloween, exactly a week away from Election Day, Mr. Lazio was finishing the highest-profile Senate campaign in a generation with a simple native-son, anti-Washington theme that might be at home in, say, the backwater towns of Arkansas.

And it just might work. For it’s anybody’s race, even though most polls show Mrs. Clinton ahead, and she can expect a huge help from Al Gore’s expected trouncing of George W. Bush in the state. Advisers on both sides concede that the race has tightened up in recent weeks. Mr. Lazio’s senior aides believe they will win if several variables break in their favor, and they are adjusting their tactics accordingly.

Having studied the skirmishes of the past several weeks, Mr. Lazio’s aides believe Team Hillary’s internal polls indicate that they have assembled a winning majority coalition. They think Mrs. Clinton’s camp therefore is devoting all of its time and resources to keeping the coalition stitched together, rather than expending efforts to win over wavering swing voters.

“Their advertising campaign in general seems to be aimed at protecting her perceived majority,” said one senior adviser to Mr. Lazio. “Their goal over the last 10 days has been to hold their coalition together rather than expand.”

As Mrs. Clinton hews to a run-out-the-clock strategy, Mr. Lazio’s advisers are focusing their endgame on a few specific battlegrounds. In order to win, they say, a number of “fluid” situations have to turn their way.

First, undecided women: The campaign will focus on winning moderate and independent women whose support for Mrs. Clinton is seen as soft. That was the idea behind the five recent “Women for Lazio” events, as well as the sudden ad assault on Mrs. Clinton’s failed health-care plan, an attack that was questioned by upstate Republicans who privately complained to the campaign that no one in their region cared about health care.

“The conventional wisdom among a lot of Republicans was that we shouldn’t be talking about health care,” the senior adviser said. “But health care is a wedge issue [for women]. We had to give them a reason to take another look at Mrs. Clinton.”

Secondly, Mr. Lazio’s advisers say they also need to win outright in Syracuse and Rochester and hold the margin close in Buffalo, three key upstate urban swing areas. To keep it tight in Buffalo, they are banking on the get-out-the-vote prowess of the Republican organization in Erie County.

Third, the Lazio campaign is banking on high turnout in Nassau and Suffolk counties, Mr. Lazio’s Long Island base. This could mean trouble for Mr. Lazio, however, since the once-vaunted Nassau Republican machine seized up disastrously this year after a string of electoral losses and the near-bankruptcy of county government.

Finally, Mr. Lazio’s advisers need to gain still more ground among wavering Jewish voters. It is on this front that the Lazio campaign has engaged in its most questionable tactics, and indeed has staked the election on an extremely risky gamble. Mr. Lazio has described Arab-American donations to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign as “blood money”; he even accused Mrs. Clinton of “consorting with terrorists.” All of this bogged the Congressman down in a petty tit-for-tat that seems emblematic of his main weakness, at least in some quarters: his perceived lack of Senatorial stature.

Pass the Catch-Up

Like Vinny Testaverde’s New York Jets, Mr. Lazio may indeed stage a dramatic, fourth-quarter win over the First Lady. But the uncomfortable truth is that he shouldn’t be playing catch-up to Mrs. Clinton. When Mr. Lazio entered the race in the spring, he immediately vaulted to 40 percent in statewide polls–even though fewer than half the voters knew who he was, and Mrs. Clinton had already visited every county in the state.

“If you had told me at the start that Rick would have raised over $30 million, and Rick would be free and clear of a primary, I would never have guessed it would be this close,” said Islip Assemblyman Phil Boyle, a close friend and adviser of Mr. Lazio.

So why is such a relentlessly ambitious politician, one who wanted this seat so badly that he practically begged Republican leaders to give him a shot at Mrs. Clinton, still locked in such a tight race with a candidate whose list of enemies seems endless, and whose lack of the common touch is legendary?

Mr. Lazio wanted the seat so badly, after all, that he paid a private visit to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani two years ago , when the Mayor was considering a Senate run of his own, to talk about his own Senate ambitions. Later, when Mr. Giuliani was a full-fledged (though unannounced) candidate, he became such a nuisance that Governor George Pataki was forced to swat him out of the race at a press conference. But a few months later, Mr. Lazio was back buzzing at the glass, again making noise about challenging Mr. Giuliani in a Republican primary.

But for all of Mr. Lazio’s energy and ambition, if the Congressman does pull off a dramatic victory, it will be in spite of his political skills, not because of them.

Consider several moments during the candidate’s appearance at the third and final debate on Oct. 27 with Gabe Pressman. He couldn’t have wished for a more perfect political foil than Mrs. Clinton. Looking weary and wearing a sour expression, unable to conceal her disdain for him, she seemed like a living embodiment of the Hillary Clinton that exists only in the nightmares of the most rabid Clinton-hater–a politician impatiently waiting to ascend to the Senate pending the superfluous ritual known as an election.

At one point, Mr. Pressman raised a question about Mrs. Clinton’s delayed reaction to the latest crisis over Israel. “It didn’t take me a couple of days to stick my finger in the wind,” Mr. Lazio said, as she glared back at him. “It took me only a couple of hours …”

The political reporters watching in the NBC studios instantly burst into laughter–not quite the response the Congressman was looking for.

A short time later, in the post-debate spin session, Mr. Lazio stood at a microphone with his wife Pat at his side, gazing up at him. After Mr. Lazio fielded several perfunctory questions, a loud, abrasive and very recognizable voice rose above the din.

“Were you or were you not prepared to run on the Independence Party line with Patrick Buchanan?” demanded Lynn Samuels, the WABC Radio talk-show host, referring to the fact that the hard-line conservative commentator had been vying for the party’s nomination for President.

“I’ve said all along that my candidate for President is Governor Bush,” Mr. Lazio stammered.

“That’s not the question I asked!” she shouted.

Mr. Lazio froze. He paused, then grinned unconvincingly. Then he quickly walked away from the microphone.

If Mr. Lazio allowed himself to be bullied by the likes of Lynn Samuels, it’s fair to wonder whether he was prepared for this campaign. But what’s so amazing about this campaign is that, despite all his shortcomings and his missteps, Mr. Lazio may still win this race. Back in 1999, when Mr. Giuliani still was considered the obvious alternative to Mrs. Clinton, top Republican operatives were saying that Mr. Lazio would make a better candidate than the sharp-edged Mr. Giuliani. They said Mr. Lazio, an unknown, a moderate, a blank slate, was just the candidate to beat Mrs. Clinton, a polarizing figure with 100 percent name recognition and very high negatives.

But Mr. Lazio hasn’t been a perfect candidate by any means. He sometimes seems too small, too light, for the large stage of this campaign and for the Senate itself. On the stump, he sometimes acts as if this is merely a large-scale rerun of the 1992 Congressional race, in which he unseated longtime incumbent Tom Downey largely by grinning and shaking hands at nursing homes and shopping centers.

Yet that might be the secret–all this parochial politicking just might work.

Consider a recent campaign stop in Chenango County. Several hundred supporters had braved prematurely frigid weather to see Mr. Lazio do his anti-Washington, native-son schtick. Referring to the First Lady’s answer to Mr. Pressman’s question of Oct. 27–did she like her opponent?–Mr. Lazio said: “It was very nice of her to name three things she likes about me at the debate. It’s too bad she can’t name three things she’s ever done for New York!” Cheers and laughter.

“The other side in this race believes in establishing a national school board out of Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Lazio continued. “Why do we have to make every decision out of Washington?”

Mr. Lazio went on in this vein for several minutes, then suddenly became somber.

“Thank you for coming out and standing in the cold,” he said, looking almost overwhelmed. “Thank you for fighting for me from the heart. From the heart. That’s what we’ve got going for us.” A lusty cheer.

Mr. Lazio paused, then went on: “We’re going to win this. We’re going to win this. I promise you, we’re going to win this. We’re gonna celebrate a great New York victory in a week.”