- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

NEWBURGH, N.Y. Eugene Watkins figures he's going to vote for the Senate candidate who tells him what he wants to hear. And the black Vietnam veteran, a registered Democrat, hasn't heard it yet.

"Yes, I look for somebody to address minority issues," said Mr. Watkins. "I care about higher wages and a good job. But being a minority, I also want someone to talk about that, too."

Black voters traditionally favor Democrats. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is predicted to win at least 90 percent of the black vote in her Senate race against Rep. Rick A. Lazio, New York Republican.

But New York's black voters are still making up their minds as to their next senator, and a new Zogby poll finds the first lady needs to increase her visibility among the state's 1.2 million black voters.

The poll finds Mr. Lazio has increased his support among black voters to 8 percent, four times what New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani scored before bowing out of the race last month for health reasons.

The gain could mean that either the first lady is losing ground or that more black voters were simply casting a vote against the mayor, rather than for Mrs. Clinton.

"Hillary clearly will get 90 percent or more of the black vote," pollster John Zogby said. "But with Rudy in the race, it promised to have an increased black turnout. I was figuring 1 [percent] to 2 percent higher."

The mayor alienated blacks, who make up 28 percent of New York City's population, with what black leaders called an empty campaign promise to reach out to minorities in 1997. Mr. Giuliani further strained relations by his handling of a series of shootings of blacks by city police over the past year.

Mr. Lazio, who is white and from Long Island, believes he can reach anyone regardless of race, "if they give me a chance."

History has shown it to be a hard constituency for Republican candidates to reach. Republican Gov. George E. Pataki received a meager 16 percent of the black vote when he was re-elected to a second term in 1998.

In a presidential year, turnout of black voters is traditionally strong, and their support will be Mrs. Clinton's to lose.

"I don't think there is a way she can blow that vote now," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat whose New York district includes Harlem. "The black vote will be determined by a large degree by the type of vote [Vice President Al] Gore gets out in our state. She will be the beneficiary of the presidential election."

She is following the Democratic footsteps of victory for the black vote in a state where Sen. Charles E. Schumer carried 86 percent of black voters in 1998 while getting 54 percent of the overall vote.

Mr. Rangel added that the first lady will benefit from her last name, as the president has become wildly popular among blacks nationwide.

While Mrs. Clinton has appeared at black events during her campaigning, she needs to be mindful of the issues, said Hazel Dukes, president of the New York state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"She would understand very well that while African-Americans may traditionally enroll [as Democrats], we are intelligent enough about the issues to know they must be addressed," Miss Dukes said.

Both candidates will be invited to appear at the group's annual state meeting in October to speak and answer questions, Miss Dukes said.

Mrs. Clinton "is not taking any votes for granted," said campaign aide Karen Dunn. "She is traveling the entire state talking about the issues."

But not everybody has caught her act, even in towns with a large black population, such as Newburgh.

"Well, I'm still waiting," said the Rev. Coleman Briggs, who came to a rally in central New York to hear what Mr. Lazio had to say. "All I know about Hillary is that she attracts a lot of attention."

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