- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

The turbulent Middle East and vigorous upstate campaigning by Rep. Rick Lazio has cut the lead of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the New York Senate race with just two weeks left until Election Day.

A statewide poll, conducted last week by John Zogby, found Mr. Lazio ahead, 43 percent to 42 percent, with 15 percent undecided, including 17 percent of Jewish voters, whose approval is crucial to the first lady's prospects. The poll's margin of error is 4.5 percent plus or minus, meaning the race is deadlocked.

Mr. Lazio, for his part, "didn't do anything" to narrow the gap, Mr. Zogby said.

"He's been staying the same in the polls around 43 percent. She's been getting hammered by conservative Jews for flip-flopping, and that vote has gone from 5 percent undecided to 17."

Five percent undecided is about average among any group at this late stage of the election season.

Mrs. Clinton had been running ahead in the past two months in the state's two other main polls by 7 percent in Quinnipiac University polling and by 4 percent in the Marist College poll.

Quinnipiac University polling had Mrs. Clinton hitting the 50 percent mark last month, a milestone in a tight race.

Last year, Mrs. Clinton angered potential Jewish supporters when she expressed support for a Palestinian state and kissed Mrs. Yasser Arafat after a speech in which she said Israeli soldiers had gassed Palestinian children. She has since told Jewish leaders she considers Jerusalem "the eternal and indivisible capital" of Israel.

"You couldn't pick a single worse issue to be at the forefront of a campaign than an eruption of terror in the Middle East, from Hillary's perspective," said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Still, the first lady carries the state's largely Democratic 1.6 million Jewish voters, about 10 percent of the electorate, by 2 to 1.

"Two to one is pretty good among Jewish voters, among any voting group," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which shows Mrs. Clinton ahead 60 percent to 30 percent among Jews. "Could she do better? Sure."

The new numbers come as Mrs. Clinton wears two hats: the New York City candidate who approaches a 70 percent approval there; and the upstate candidate who is earnestly trying to dent her opponent's seven-point lead.

Mr. Lazio recently has begun to campaign in earnest in conservative areas of upstate and western New York, hoping to negate Mrs. Clinton's ambitious statewide campaign.

Mr. Lazio was criticized in late summer for not campaigning as hard as the first lady.

"She had closed the gap upstate, but she was campaigning in a vacuum," Mr. Zogby said. "She was all alone there, and as he has started to come up there more, you can see how soft her support was."

Two debates have established Mr. Lazio, a moderate conservative from Long Island, as a contender in the race.

His move in the first debate to physically approach Mrs. Clinton with a contract to ban soft money advertising was called a "stunt" by his opponent, but ensured Mr. Lazio a place on the lips of New York voters.

A third debate will be held Friday in New York City at WNBC-TV and broadcast statewide at 7 p.m.

Aside from Mr. Lazio's theatrics and the usual tide of press releases disparaging the other side, the campaign has been remarkably typical: plenty of sharp attacks but nothing overtly offensive.

Yesterday was the first mention of the first lady's private life, which Mr. Lazio has said he considers out of bounds.

A fund-raising letter from Mr. Lazio's campaign includes a newspaper editorial that raises the Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers sex scandals.

"Rick Lazio looked New Yorkers in the eye and told them that he wasn't making this an issue, and now we know that wasn't true," Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said.

The letter includes a Wall Street Journal editorial from Sept. 15: "Senator Clinton would represent the perpetuation of the myths of the Clinton presidency, a vindication of its lies large and small, and an absolution of her husband's moral and ethical standards."

The candidates have argued economic policy, Social Security and education with the traditional partisan differences. Mr. Lazio has emphasized the word "mainstream," which is emblazoned on the side of his campaign bus and frequently used in speeches.

Mrs. Clinton, with her trademark barbed eloquence, has set out a list of problems that she can remedy, such as high taxes, poor infrastructure and utility problems.

The first lady tells audiences she will "change the image of upstate New York" and that she favors action to pay down the government's debt by the year 2012.

No one has found fault with her work ethic, which has at times paralleled her husband's stamina.

In the next two weeks, the candidates will go back to their established bases for Mrs. Clinton, minorities and New York City residents; for Mr. Lazio, the suburban and upstate voters and encourage those people to vote.

"The big thing will be turnout," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "I don't think they will worry about swing voters."

In the next two weeks, "this race is all about Hillary," Mr. Zogby noted. "She can lose it, she can win it. Lazio just has to do what he's been doing."

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