- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. An hour after Wednesday's Senate debate with opponent Rep. Rick A. Lazio, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was holding court with her staff at the TGI Friday's restaurant in the downtown Radisson hotel.
It wasn't pretty.
Her subdued dinner table betrayed what pundits are calling a draw but what others said was a launching pad for Mr. Lazio, the four-term congressman from Long Island and former assistant district attorney.
"If there were many of the undecided people watching," said Bill Cunningham, a former adviser to Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo, "they now have a reason to check into Rick Lazio. People all over the state saw the front page of the newspapers, of Lazio standing next to Hillary. He's now officially on equal ground with her."
Predebate polling found 7 percent of voters declaring themselves undecided.
Each side has asserted victory in the meeting, touting unscientific polls. Mrs. Clinton's team pointed to a poll conducted for WCBS and the New York Daily News of 274 registered voters who watched that found that 49 percent said she fared better compared with 36 percent favoring Mr. Lazio.
However, the newspaper's own panel of media experts gave Mr. Lazio the edge, 57 to 50, in a grading system based on the candidates' presentations.
For its part, the Lazio campaign sent out a news release touting the results of an MSNBC Internet poll of 18,700 viewers that showed he won 67 percent to 24 percent.
In a statement, Clinton campaign manager Bill de Blasio lauded the WCBS preliminary poll.
"Once again, the voters have decisively chosen Hillary's campaign of issues over Rick Lazio's campaign of insults," he said, ensuring that the verbal volleys will not likely die down soon.
Hillary fans and staff yesterday disparaged Mr. Lazio's dramatic move of approaching the first lady's lectern and attempting to hand her a contract that would forbid the use of "soft money" for the rest of the campaign.
Members of the media raked Mr. Lazio for being aggressive in his fight for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Some even said his tactic turned off female voters, who viewed his combativeness on the issues as an attack against a woman.
Mr. Lazio said simply: "We New Yorkers don't back down from a fight."
Mrs. Clinton, for her part, told her backers she was relieved: "It was my first debate, and I feel like I survived."
Pollsters are already clicking the numbers on the longer-term effect of the debate.
"I thought the state was enriched by it," said pollster John Zogby. "There is now no doubt that Lazio belongs in the race and could be a senator. He answered questions of who he is without being defensive. The whole debate documents how close the two are in the polls."
Dr. Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion saw the debate as a draw. He said while Mr. Lazio came on very strong, "Hillary couldn't get away from her past but Rick Lazio couldn't get to his future."
The name "Gingrich" was uttered 10 times between the two candidates during Wednesday's skirmish.
Television here led with the story sharing an enthusiasm for the debate with every newspaper in the state. Most broadcasters referred to it as a rather brutal battle.
Moderator Tim Russert, who was criticized during some political talk shows for his pointed questions for the first lady, called it "fun and feisty."
The debate coalesced Mr. Lazio's efforts to paint Mrs. Clinton as an outsider a non-New Yorker who is simply there because of her connections. A new ad by the American Conservative Union began running in limited markets this week labeling Mrs. Clinton the carpetbagger:
Announcer: "In New York, all babies like these have something in common."
(On screen: single baby, wearing Yankee baseball cap.)
Announcer: "They've lived here longer than Hillary Rodham Clinton… ."
Mrs. Clinton will likely spend the next 6 1/2 weeks trying to stay outside of the story but, inevitably, responding in kind when attacked by her opponent.
Her campaign did not return calls for this story.
And as she sought to distance herself from her husband's scandals, the Clinton administration announced it would soon release a list of overnight guests at the White House and the Camp David presidential retreat in response to suggestions that Mrs. Clinton traded visits for contributions to her Senate campaign.
"As soon as that list is ready and I have a chance to review it, I will make it available," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. That may take a few days, but the sooner the better, Mr. Lockhart said, "so that this story can go away."
Reporters sought the list to compare it with rosters of Mrs. Clinton's political supporters.
The Clinton administration was criticized after the 1996 re-election campaign for inviting big donors to spend the night. Republicans in Congress, along with some less partisan critics, complained that the practice dulled the majesty of the White House.

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