- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. Rep. Rick A. Lazio yesterday accepted the Republican nomination to oppose first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for the U.S. Senate, continuing to stress his New York roots and vowing to deliver on a "message of hope, opportunity and responsibility."
"I am the underdog. My opponent is better financed and better known," Mr. Lazio acknowledged to the 400 delegates and party supporters in the packed ballroom at the downtown Hyatt Regency.
"She comes to New York with the support of every left-wing interest, from the Washington insiders to the Hollywood elite.
"But as I've said before, bring 'em on."
Mr. Lazio sported a swollen lip held together by eight stitches, a wound he received when he fell at a Memorial Day parade on Long Island. In several speeches during the day, the candidate referred to his obvious injury.
"I've heard of pounding the pavement, but this is ridiculous," he said in his acceptance speech filled with self-deprecation that went over well with a crowd that was positively in his pocket.
Mr. Lazio larded his speech with digs at Mrs. Clinton, continuing to tout his lineage as a New Yorker.
"I have one big advantage here," said Mr. Lazio, who was born and raised in his home district on Long Island. "I can be myself. I am a New Yorker. It's not just a mailing address."
Mrs. Clinton has fought the "carpetbagger" tag since she moved to the state last fall to seek the Senate seat.
Attendees were sometimes as anti-Clinton as they were pro-Lazio. Many wore pins disparaging Mrs. Clinton and bumper stickers doing the same were handed out and grabbed up with zeal.
In introductory speeches, other high-profile New York Republicans also disparaged the first lady.
Gov. George E. Pataki said that when Mr. Lazio puts on a New York Yankees cap, "it fits." Mrs. Clinton donned an oversized hat in the early days of her campaign.
Mrs. Clinton's campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said Mr. Lazio had "offered the people of New York recycled insults and rhetoric that doesn't match his record. Time and time again, Rick Lazio has voted against New York's working families in Washington."
Mr. Lazio's campaign is just two weeks old, having been assembled on short notice when New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out as the potential Republican nominee, citing his affliction with prostate cancer.
Peppering his speech with calls for better public education and affordable health care, Mr. Lazio was unrepentant about his voting record during his eight years in Congress.
"I have a mainstream record and am proud of it," he said.
Mr. Lazio's opponents already have started accusing him of being a Newt Gingrich clone, citing voting similarities with the divisive ex-speaker of the House.
Mr. Lazio's speech was delivered in a brightly lit and overcrowded room that was festooned with red, white and blue at every turn. Balloons and buntings draped the walls and a huge American flag hung behind the stage.
The candidate entered to the "Rocky" theme, a musical choice that drew some titters from the audience.
A good-sized chunk of the narrow ballroom was set aside for a photographers' platform, and a media table took up more space at the back of the room. The crowd overflowed into hallways to watch the proceedings on television.
Most of the party faithful were jubilant about Mr. Lazio's entry into the fray, fostered in part by his openness and his willingness to talk to anybody at any time.
"I met him last year, when he was considering running for office, and liked him immediately," said Christine Pilozzi, a convention attendee from suburban Tonawanda. "It was like talking to him … was no big deal, he was so down to earth."
Mr. Lazio's stance on abortion, which is mostly pro-choice, has done little to alienate most Republicans, while the 42-year-old congressman has attracted the respect of younger party members, said Buffalo resident Emil Everett.
"I think more and more, younger people can be attracted by that kind of stance," said Mr. Everett, 38, who said he has been involved in politics since he was a teen-ager.
The candidate yesterday attended a special "Women for Lazio" luncheon before the convention, drawing a full house as well as a bevy of reporters and camera crews.
In a charcoal suit, white shirt and salmon tie, Mr. Lazio freely gave interviews, took pictures and grasped the hands of supporters while working the room. Women hugged him even as they munched their broiled chicken, and he didn't miss a hand extended for a shake.
"He has electrified this party," said Richard Don Zarbo, a party member and a city council member in nearby Lancaster. "He couldn't have timed his candidacy better."
Mr. Lazio also is drawing the ABC (Anybody But Clinton) vote with ferocity. One veteran attending the convention, who did not want to be identified, said he was an Independent Party member.
"But I could never vote for Hillary because of her husband, a draft-dodger," said the man, who was adorned with military medals.
For others, Mr. Lazio's smooth style was a draw. Women became radiant when he walked by them and his easygoing demeanor played well as he walked down the streets of Buffalo.
"He's exciting," said Karen Braner, who was visiting Buffalo with her husband, Roger. Both were sporting the flavor-of-the-day anti-Clinton stickers on their lapels, a circle around the word "Hillary" with a line drawn through it.
The Falls Church, Va., couple have a cottage in nearby Ridgeway, Ontario, and crossed the border to see Mr. Lazio speak.
"We don't know much about Lazio, but he just started," Mr. Braner said. "But we know nothing about Hillary, and she's been at it for months."
The couple's interest is part of the national appeal of the New York Senate race, even without Mr. Giuliani, the acerbic and colorful New York City mayor.
Mr. Lazio's doubters claim he does not have the celebrity status of Mrs. Clinton and carries a congressional voting record that is mixed, sometimes even waffling.
"He needs to show me who he is before he gets my vote, or I'll vote for a third-party candidate," said one onlooker.
Pollsters have Mr. Lazio in a statistical tie with the first lady. Mrs. Clinton will try tenaciously to garner any edge she can muster through her legendary roadwork, which includes visits to all 62 of New York's counties.
But Mr. Lazio plans on racking up some miles himself. Last night, he departed Buffalo for Syracuse and an ambitious campaign tour of central New York.

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