- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

The Republican Party for the past eight years has taken for granted its hold on New York's 2nd Congressional District, where Rep. Rick A. Lazio, the up-and-coming lawmaker from Long Island, held sway.

But when Mr. Lazio announced last week he would run for the U.S. Senate against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, his seat was left invitingly open to Democrats seeking to gain a majority in the House.

"It was a remote possibility before. Now, we consider it very winnable," said John Del Cecato, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans hold a six-seat edge in the House and will defend 24 vacated seats in the Nov. 7 election. Of those, fewer than a dozen a number that now includes New York's 2nd District are perceived to be vulnerable.

"It puts us in a difficult spot right now in two ways," said Suffolk County Republican Chairman Tony Apollaro. "We need to find a candidate and we need to finance a candidate."

County Republicans will meet within the next week and sort through a short list of possibilities, including Islip town Supervisor Pete McGowan and two state assemblymen.

Predictably, nobody has a lot of money and the short notice does not bode well for campaigning.

"Nobody was prepared for this," Mr. McGowan said. "I had never even considered a congressional run before I was approached recently."

Mr. McGowan was just re-elected to a second term to run the "town" of 340,000 and has around $1 million in his campaign fund, a lucrative catch for the county party.

"But when it comes to fund raising, we're going to have some trouble in the district," added Mr. McGowan. "Rick is also going to be looking for money, and there's only so much of it to go around."

The 190-square-mile district a working-class, mainly white area has voted with little predictability over the years. In 1996, 55 percent of the district's vote went for President Clinton. In 1992, 41 percent cast votes for Republican President George Bush to 40 percent for Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Lazio, though, has wrapped up his re-election bids handily after narrowly upsetting 18-year incumbent Democratic Rep. Tom Downey in 1992.

The entire congressional district lies within Suffolk County, and within the district, registered Republican voters outnumber their opponents 56 percent to 44 percent.

It is a district that has been considerably free-wheeling when it comes to putting up political money. Mr. Lazio spent $1.5 million in his re-election campaign in 1998 and $640,000 for his successful run in 1996.

Despite Mr. Lazio's fund-raising prowess, Democrats appear willing to invest what is needed to run a competitive race.

No big-name Democratic candidates have entered the race in the past week.

"No matter how you look at it, we stand a great chance of winning that seat," said Stephen Baranello, a Suffolk County Democrat who is also Mrs. Clinton's campaign coordinator in the county. "[House Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt has said he's interested in making it a Democratic seat. It's now a target seat."

Admitting the race can make national politics tight, a Republican operative said the seat needs to be held by the Republicans.

"It has the potential to be a big congressional race," said Jim Wilkinson, director of communications with the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The Democrats are seats away from changing the course of this nation."

As for financial help from the national party?

"A lot of that will depend on how much the candidate can raise," Mr. Wilkinson said.

The Democrats' bid for a House majority was set back Tuesday when Rep. Pat Danner of Missouri announced she will not seek re-election.

Mrs. Danner's seat could give Democrats five potentially competitive open seats to defend, although any vulnerability was downplayed.

"It's Democratic territory," Mr. Del Cecato said.

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