The sudden emergence of representative Rick Lazio as the Republican Party’s champion against Hillary Rodham Clinton has been advertised as a coup for former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who relentlessly touted Mr. Lazio for months as an alternative to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “Kingmaker Al back from G.O.P. Exile,” blared a headline in the New York Post .
But Mr. D’Amato’s supposed return begs a question. Why isn’t the old D’Amato gang running Rick Lazio’s new show?
As Mr. Lazio hastily puts together a staff to take on Mrs. Clinton, it has become clear that a generational transfer of power is taking place in state Republican politics. The old cast of D’Amato allies who controlled statewide Republican campaigns for a generation-Zenia Mucha, a longtime adviser to Mr. D’Amato and Gov. George Pataki; conservative mastermind Arthur Finkelstein, Mr. D’Amato’s creator; and Kieran Mahoney, Mr. Finkelstein’s protégé-are unlikely to exert any hands-on control over the most-celebrated Senate race in the country.
“I have no expectations at all [of playing a role],” Mr. Mahoney told The Observer . “I haven’t talked to Rick Lazio in a year.”
Instead, Mr. Lazio is relying on a maverick group of young G.O.P. stars drawn from the camps of two longtime tormentors of the state Republican establishment: Mr. Giuliani and Senator John McCain. Mr. Lazio’s camp already has approached several senior advisers to Mr. Giuliani to discuss possible high-level positions with the Lazio campaign, sources told The Observer.
“The choices Rick is making now show he’s moving away from a D’Amato-style campaign, both in terms of personnel and in terms of substance,” added a close political ally of Mr. Lazio. “New Yorkers are sick of negative campaigns.”
Meanwhile, some of Mr. Giuliani’s top campaign aides are likely to occupy positions that might have gone to allies of Mr. D’Amato. “Bruce Teitelbaum [the Mayor’s campaign manager] and the Giuliani team spent a year assembling a group of professionals and volunteers,” said Rick Wilson, a senior adviser to Mr. Giuliani. “We’ve got a remarkable research team, press shop, statewide field operation and the best fund- raising in the country. I am sure Rick Lazio understands it’s better to take command of a trained army than to try to raise one from scratch.”
Mr. Lazio already has tapped former McCain aide Mike Murphy, who helped engineer the Arizona Senator’s bitter battle to get on the primary ballot in New York. The struggle humiliated the state G.O.P., which backed Texas Governor George W. Bush and hoped to use state election law to stymie Mr. McCain in New York. And according to G.O.P. sources , a partner of Mr. Murphy has been recruited to join Mr. Lazio: Cliff Pintak, a veteran of field operations. (Mr. Pintak couldn’t be reached for comment.) Also expected to join the Lazio effort, according to the sources, is Tony Fabrizio, a nationally known pollster who worked for former Senator Bob Dole.
These efforts to bypass the state’s top Republican operatives are likely to complicate matters for Mr. Pataki, who is indebted to Mr. D’Amato and the old guard, but who also will be a key player in Mr. Lazio’s campaign. Some of Mr. Giuliani’s campaign aides already are positioning themselves as alternatives to longtime D’Amato allies in the campaign for Mr. Lazio’s soul. These efforts may enrage the former Senator, who has assiduously courted attention in recent weeks by denying alleged rumors that he is in demand as a candidate for U.S. Senate, Governor or Mayor. “Any adviser who suggests to Lazio that he engage in the hackneyed and failed strategies advocated for D’Amato by the Finkelstein cabal is doing him a vast disservice,” said one Republican consultant involved in the Giuliani campaign.
The Machine Fails
As the consultant suggested, Mr. Lazio might have good reason to look to a new cast of characters. Two years ago, in 1998, the vaunted Republican machine that had redefined state politics beginning with Mr. D’Amato’s election in 1980 seized up disastrously. Two Republican incumbents-Mr. D’Amato and state Attorney General Dennis Vacco-lost, and Mr. Pataki won barely 51 percent of the vote in a re-election bid against weak Democratic opposition. Many, including editorial writers at the New York Post , blamed Mr. Finkelstein and company for running an overly negative campaign-a strategy that had worked brilliantly in the past, but seemed exhausted in 1998.
Now Mr. Lazio wants to ensure that he doesn’t make the same mistake. “I think it is time for new thinking,” said Representative Peter King, a Long Island Republican who recently abandoned his own Senate bid to close ranks behind Mr. Lazio.
In a reference to the attack-dog politics that Mr. Finkelstein once used to great effect against Mario Cuomo in 1994, Mr. King added: “The ‘too-liberal-for-too-long’ phrase has outlived its usefulness. [Mr. Lazio] may need to run a different campaign than the recent D’Amato and Vacco campaigns. It should be non-traditional. If Rick can run his campaign differently than, let’s say, D’Amato in ’98, it could really catch Hillary off guard.”
Mr. Mahoney, for one, dismissed notions of a power shift. “Everybody who’s new brings in their set of guys,” he said. “That’s the way it works. Rick Lazio is a U.S. congressman who has developed a set of his own relationships.”
Of course, Mr. Lazio’s candidacy does bear some of the hallmarks of a D’Amato-sponsored effort. For instance, Mr. D’Amato is expected to put his extensive Rolodex to use to help Mr. Lazio raise money. And Mr. D’Amato is doing his best to advertise his supposed role as kingmaker. At a recent fund-raising event in midtown, the Post reported, Mr. D’Amato led the boyish congressman around by the hand, grinning broadly. The scene was reminiscent of another of Mr. D’Amato’s power-broker moments: In 1994, the Senator led another of his chosen candidates-Mr. Pataki-around by the hand at a fund-raising event. A picture of the incident landed on the front page of The New York Times , playing perfectly into the hands of those who sought to portray Mr. Pataki as a puppet of Mr. D’Amato.
Still, there are plenty of signs that Mr. Lazio is quietly trying to break free of D’Amato-style politics. The congressman’s early attacks on Mrs. Clinton bear little resemblance to the shrill slogans used by the former senator and his political masterminds. Although Mr. Lazio has assailed Mrs. Clinton as a carpetbagger and a liberal ideologue, he has yet to indulge in the sort of personal attacks that Mr. D’Amato delighted in using against his opponents over the years. (For example, it is unlikely that Mr. Lazio will refer to Mrs. Clinton as a “putzhead.”)
“I would say that Rick wants to run a much more positive campaign than [state Republicans] have done in the past,” said Long Island assemblyman Phil Boyle, an adviser to Mr. Lazio. “He will make some jabs at Hillary, but for the most part, it’s going to be a new statewide campaign.”