How Angry Is Governor at His Protégé, Lazio?

An advance man for Rick Lazio sprinted frantically alongside his boss at the Columbus Day Parade on Oct. 9. He was a bespectacled, heavy-set guy, but he nimbly threaded his way through the crowd, popping up at every corner and waving a sign at every camera to give the impression that the parade’s route was thronged with delirious Lazio supporters.

“I want to hear you yell and scream!” he shouted. “Everybody who has Lazio signs, get them up in the air!”

If the signs weren’t up in the air, after all, it might look as if the crowd were cheering not for Mr. Lazio, but for his Republican companions. There, marching briskly alongside the grinning Congressman, were Senator John McCain, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki–all highly popular figures who threaten to overshadow Mr. Lazio at joint appearances.

Lucky for Mr. Lazio, perhaps, that such joint appearances have been few and far between. Though Mr. McCain has popped up regularly in support of Mr. Lazio, you could count on two hands the number of events at which Governor Pataki has appeared at his side.

Or perhaps not so lucky. Maybe dumb, some Republican operatives are complaining. For in Mr. Lazio’s insistence on being his own man, they say, he has cut himself off from a wealth of knowledge about how to run Republican political campaigns in New York, and that possibly could cost him the election.

“Mr. Lazio is immensely popular in about nine places, and the governor is popular in about 400,” said political consultant Norman Adler, who is working for several Republican State Senate candidates and has polled extensively on the Governor’s popularity. “Without exception, I recommend my clients use the Governor, even in areas where Democrats are a substantial portion of the vote, because the Governor has an appeal that transcends party lines. More than Ed Koch. More than Rudolph Giuliani.”

Of course, Mr. Lazio is trailing in most polls, having given up crucial ground that has edged his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, above that all-important 50 percent mark. And the Governor may have hurt more than helped in recent days with his E.B. White blunder, where he professed ignorance of the former New Yorker writer and children’s book author in a misfiring meant to show that Mrs. Clinton is more the property of “Manhattan intellectuals” (like Yale grads?) than “real New Yorkers.” Oops.

Mr. Pataki, however, is not as gaffe-prone as his E.B. White mishap might indicate–nor are his appearances as ineffective as his overall gawky style and pedestrian speechmaking might lead some to believe. He has won two elections in New York. In a majority Democratic state, he remains a popular governor. He has gotten where he is–and stayed there–partly because he has surrounded himself with people who know New York and live and breathe its politics, his supporters say. Inexplicably, Mr. Lazio has wanted virtually no part of them.

A case in point was Mr. Lazio’s refusal to attend the New York League of Conservation Voters’ debate on Oct. 4. The environment is one issue that Mr. Pataki and his advisers know a thing or two about–and an issue about which many voting New Yorkers care deeply, according to polls. Mr. Lazio himself has a 69 percent rating from the national League–compared to a 16 percent rating for all Republicans in 1999 or a 46 percent average for Congress overall. That’s a record, many Republicans and environmentalists believe, that Mr. Lazio could have sold to the state League; as much as anything, should they endorse him, it could give him a defining issue, coloring in the vague outline that exists in many voters’ minds.

But according to Paul Elston, the New York League’s chairman, the Lazio campaign rejected that advice, even when it was delivered by the Governor himself. “I expressed to [Mr. Pataki] how important I thought it was and how much it would mean for the board in considering whom to endorse. I said, ‘Please go back to the Lazio campaign and say this is something you ought to do.’ I had several conversations about that. I’m sure he carried that message back.”

Mr. Pataki–better than any other Republican in the state, in fact–should know the importance of working with the League. In 1996, the Governor recruited Mr. Elston to co-chair his Clean Air-Clean Water Bond Act campaign. That effort brought the Governor’s approval ratings, which had languished in the 30’s and 40’s, above 50 percent, where they have remained ever since.

But Mr. Lazio did not attend the debate, and Mr. Elston–arguably Mr. Pataki’s closest friend in the environmental community–said afterwards that Mrs. Clinton had “helped herself greatly” by attending the event (she spoke solo) held at the Society for Ethical Culture on Oct. 4, while Mr. Lazio had “hurt his cause.” The League makes its endorsement on Oct. 12.

On the record, Pataki advisers are sanguine about Mr. Lazio and his campaign strategist, Mike Murphy.

“I believe very much they’re taking the appropriate direction,” said Kieran Mahoney, Governor Pataki’s media man. Did he think Mr. Lazio was taking sufficient advantage of Mr. Pataki as a resource? “The Governor has been an effective advocate for them, but the most important advocate is the candidate himself,” Mr. Mahoney said.

The Governor’s senior adviser, Zenia Mucha, would not comment for this article.

But other Pataki insiders, speaking without attribution, dumped buckets of criticism on the struggling Mr. Lazio. To be sure, there is always carping at the end of a campaign about what is going wrong and who’s responsible–particularly, as in this one, when the stakes are very high. But the depth of frustration runs deep–and the complaints have been piling up.

“They’re making exactly the same mistake [losing] New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevy made,” said Republican strategist Roger Stone. “At the Columbus Day Parade, half the people still don’t know who this guy is. He just needs to fill in the blanks.”

“Why do they keep calling him ‘Rick’?” asked one Pataki adviser. “I mean, ‘Congressman’ says, right up front, he’s the guy with the experience; it gives him stature, which he needs.” Even Hillary Clinton aides acknowledge private amusement about the way Mr. Lazio’s camp followed Mrs. Clinton’s lead–calling their candidate by his first name.

There are more complaints. “They just hired the fucking wrong people!” said one operative who has worked on Republican campaigns in New York, including Governor Pataki’s. “I mean, I understand why they didn’t want Alfonse D’Amato’s people”–that would be Arthur Finkelstein and Mr. Mahoney, who were excoriated in 1998 for running a relentlessly negative campaign for Mr. D’Amato, who lost to Chuck Schumer–”but he didn’t pick the other people he needs to help them.”

The Lazio campaign is not without its Pataki people. Deputy campaign manager Eileen Long is perhaps the highest-ranking. But, said one critic, “I don’t think they listen to her.”

But irking many critics more than the lack of Pataki advisers involved is the presence of one very much outside the Pataki camp.

“This race is not about any strategist; it’s about the candidate,” said another operative. “How did it get to be about Mike Murphy?”

Mr. Murphy was hired by Mr. Lazio right off the John McCain Presidential campaign. That means Mr. Murphy, who was Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, was key to the New York primary battle in which Mr. Pataki and the state Republican Party, protecting the ballot for George W. Bush, were trounced by the McCain forces. (The “Comrade Pataki” label must have hurt–but perhaps not as much as having to give in and allow Mr. McCain his place on the state ballot.)

William Powers, the state G.O.P. chair, laughed off the old animosities when Mr. Lazio ascended as the state’s nominee and Mr. Murphy was named. But many speculate that resentments run deep.

“The McCain people caused Mr. Pataki a tremendous amount of embarrassment on this issue of getting on the ballot,” said one donor to New York Republican causes. “From a human nature standpoint, how could they not think, ‘Who are these motherfuckers?'”

Rubbing it in, there are constant reminders on the Lazio trail of the McCain campaign–the tour bus à la McCain, the rallying around campaign-finance reform and the soft-money issue à la McCain, even the steady presence of Mr. McCain himself. (“New York,” sniffed one high-level Republican, “is not New Hampshire.”)

Of course, even the soft-money issue was mucked up when Mr. Lazio decided to use $1.8 million of Republican Party money for an ad (he later gave the money back). “That,” said one Washington, D.C.-based strategist, “was a colossal blunder. I mean, it doesn’t pass the smell test.” The money was hard money, and it is legal, but no one in the Lazio camp bothered to explain to reporters at the outset that it was exempt from the agreement. Mr. Murphy, however, having to explain it, deepened the blunder on Oct. 6 during a contentious 80-minute conference call with reporters, in which he three times blamed the New York media for not understanding campaign-finance law and “making this an issue.”

As for Mr. McCain’s presence–they may march together on Mr. Lazio’s behalf, but as the October days grow colder, don’t look for any signs of warmth emanating from the two national Republican figures. Indeed, at a Hofstra University rally on Oct. 7 attended by both Mr. McCain and Mr. Pataki, the Governor, dressed in khaki pants and a blue blazer, looked like he’d just been made to suck on a plate of lemons.

What, however, of Mr. Pataki’s relationship with Mr. Lazio? If the Pataki-Lazio advertisement now airing is any indication, it is strange indeed. The Governor is first speaking into the camera, encouraging voters to support Mr. Lazio. The image then dissolves into a scene of Mr. Lazio and Mr. Pataki speaking to each other, but only Mr. Pataki’s voice is heard, as an overdub. Their mouths are moving, but you can’t hear what either is saying–a metaphor, perhaps, for the mutual exchanges that apparently aren’t being heard.

Sources familiar with the Governor say he has been working hard on Mr. Lazio’s behalf, particularly on fund-raising. And Lazio aides, Mr. Murphy included, express deep satisfaction with the Governor and his people. The Lazio campaign promises many more appearances by the two together, particularly upstate, which Mr. Pataki won 68 percent to 32 percent in 1994, and which Mr. Lazio appears to be winning by just five points. But so far, voters are more likely to see Libby Pataki and Pat Lazio side by side than their husbands.

“They still can win,” said one high-level operative who was critical of Mr. Lazio’s campaign, “I think.”

The alternative is almost unthinkable for many Republicans.

“In Washington, we want Mr. Lazio to win almost more than Mr. Bush,” said one national Republican strategist. “We want these people to pack up and leave.”

–With Greg Sargent How Angry Is Governor at His Protégé, Lazio?