- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

NEW YORK A casual observer would never guess that traditionally this is the slow season in politics, languid days of beach-going and barbecuing with the TV turned off and newspapers piled up.

Even though few potential voters may be paying attention, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio, New York Republican, are in full campaign mode, blasting away on the stump and over the air as though November is only days away.

Since Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out of the race, Mrs. Clinton, who is opposing Mr. Lazio in the U.S. Senate race, has taken off her white gloves. The Long Island congressman, playing defense, is giving as good as he gets. Both are going negative even as they accuse each other of doing so.

"Their camp is about tearing people down," said Mr. Lazio recently. "This is their M.O. I understand that. I guess I understood that going in… . I'm not going to be dragged down into the mud with them."

But in the mud is where many political experts say the race is, and should be, especially in such a high-profile contest that pits a controversial first lady with a virtual unknown. "Even though there's usually a slowdown for summer, we're running as though we're 5 points behind," said Mike Murphy, chief strategist for Mr. Lazio. His candidate and Mrs. Clinton have been running neck and neck in the polls.

The campaign brickbats are flying daily: She says he didn't vote for a patient's bill of rights. He says he did. She says he missed a vote on a bill to create oil reserves for the Northeast. He says five Democrats missed it, too. She says his absence from the Gay Pride Parade proves he does not support homosexual rights. He says he does. She says he's not really pro-choice. He says he is.

At one point even the president got into the fray by attacking Republican tax-cut proposals as a dangerous "Bush-Lazio tax plan."

Still, the political experts are urging more bloodshed from those in the arena.

"Barefoot boy with cheek of tan doesn't work in New York," said Democratic consultant Norman Adler, comparing Mr. Lazio's fresh-faced looks to the John Greenleaf Whittier poem. At the same time he admits that "One would expect that the Democratic candidate would be better. She's not in trouble, but she's moving more slowly than she should."

Rep. Peter T. King of Long Island, who advertised for the opportunity to oppose Mrs. Clinton, might have been a better Republican choice, he added.

For Mr. King's part, his only criticism of his colleague is that he doesn't get off the mark fast enough. "He has to be a little firmer on offense," said the conservative Republican. "You have to be on the attack and create a climate of mutually assured destruction," he added.

"They're kind of like ex-cons," said Mr. Murphy of the Clintons. "People know they've misbehaved in the past, so they're being carefully watched, and the usual Clinton tricks won't be effective. We expect this campaign to come right out of the sewer."

Mrs. Clinton's campaign staff did not return calls for comment on the new drift of the campaign, but it has repeatedly insisted that she is sticking to the issues even as she attacks the four-term congressman. A probe by the SEC into a stock trade that Mr. Lazio made one in which he invested $2,300 and made $16,000 on the day the company was bought out was initially requested by State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, one of the first lady's loyal supporters.

Mr. Lazio sees the SEC probe as a move by the Clinton White House to use federal agencies to aid the president's wife and "force their will down the throats of New Yorkers."

"Scandal doesn't cut it," said pollster John Zogby. "She's going to have to come up with something new."

He said Mrs. Clinton must win 70 percent of the city which is her natural liberal base and the rest in the suburbs and upstate if she is to prevail.

Joseph Mercurio, a New York-based consultant, believes Mrs. Clinton has already been disconnected from that base, namely white, female Democrats and independents. In a survey he conducted on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he found that in a head-to-head match-up Mrs. Clinton prevailed over her opponent 45.9 percent to 43.4 percent, but those who described themselves as ticket-splitters chose Mr. Lazio over Mrs. Clinton by 46.8 percent to 35.3 percent, and independents picked Mr. Lazio by 41.4 percent to 30.1 percent.

Mrs. Clinton brought her daughter, Chelsea, to the campaign this week during her second appearance on the steps of City Hall, a traditional soap box for New York politicians. Some see this as designed to appeal to "soccer moms" disenchanted with Mrs. Clinton.

"She spent the last few months running as 'Woman Alone,' " said Mr. Zogby. "But she's going to have to come up with something fresh."

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