After all the listening, nodding and waving in parades, someone has finally thrown a punch in the New York Senate race. In an appeal for money, Rick Lazio sent out these words, "Hillary Clinton and her husband have embarrassed our country and disgraced their powerful posts." He then zeroed in on the mother lode of what bugs some people about her. "She covets power and control and thinks she should be dictating how other people run their lives."
Wow, that soccer mom who's had it up to here with Hillary couldn't have put it better! But the ink on the letter was barely dry before Lazio was trying to put a smiley face above the i in his signature. "Frankly," Lazio said, always a tip-off that a politician is about to fog up your glasses, "these letters are written, you know, not by me." Riding on his newly christened Mainstream Express, he went on to explain, "It's not what you send some donor list that matters. What matters is how you are conducting yourself."
Conducting himself like the plucky boy next door has worked well for Lazio, who has risen quickly from being a local prosecuting attorney to a Suffolk County legislator to becoming a Congressman at age 34. He also knows from a lot of recent history that going negative can be dangerous. The easiest way for a candidate with serious character flaws to neutralize them is to have an opponent point them out. Bill Bradley began his descent when he called Al Gore a liar. And Hillary began her rise in the polls when dark forces--Ken Starr, the Congress, the vast right-wing conspiracy--aligned against her.
But isn't it also perilous in a place like New York not to show a little grit? Lazio's greatest vulnerability may be the perception that he remains, even after eight years in the House, a lightweight. This doesn't hurt him among regular Republicans, who love him to pieces for staying close to his roots, remaining polite to his elders and not rocking any boats. His supporters admire him for straddling factions, sticking with Speaker Newt Gingrich through a failed coup to depose him while staying cozy with insurgent leader Dick Armey, who led it. In a safe seat, it's fine to wait until the end of a roll call before deciding whether to give your vote to your district or your leadership, as long as you rise in seniority and bring home the bacon. He has parsed his votes so carefully that the neutral National Journal rates him a moderate, making it hard for Hillary to morph him into Tom DeLay. In fact, last week she edged her position on partial-birth abortion closer to Lazio's.
He has a knack for being all things to all people, moving as easily among the blue collars of Islip as he did among the starched white collars of Southampton at a glittery party attended by wealthy liberals from Manhattan over the 4th of July weekend. At the 78th annual dinner of the Agudath Israel, he outschmoozed all the other pols there. He was at the center of a thousand bobbing black hats in the Hilton ballroom eager to get a closer look at the golden son of Italy who had come seeking their support. He seems to embody white-picket-fence family values. You'd want him to marry your daughter if he hadn't already married his grad-school sweetheart who's produced two adorable children and boasts that she cleans her own house. Do not expect any bimbo eruptions.