NEW YORK Republican Rep. Rick A. Lazio yesterday told first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton that when it comes to soft money campaign contributions, “Please, no lectures from Motel 1600.”
Mr. Lazio delivered the rebuke a reference to campaign donors bunking overnight in the White House and at Camp David in the second debate between the two in the New York Senate race.
On a more personal note the usually taboo subject of her marital relationship Mrs. Clinton stunned the audience by saying she chose to stay with the president, despite his philandering, because of her “religious faith” and “strong sense of family.”
The first lady opened the debate with a velvet fist. “Mr. Lazio, I do want you to put your mind at ease in case you’re worrying. I won’t be coming to your podium today,” she said, referring to their first debate last month when the congressman crossed the stage and, shoving a paper in front of her, challenged the first lady to sign an agreement banning the use of soft money unregulated funds to political groups in the campaign. Some political observers said the tactic may have cost the four-term Long Island congressman some votes, particularly among women.
Although the two contenders reportedly reached an agreement on avoiding soft money, Mrs. Clinton attacked Mr. Lazio last week for accepting $1.4 million in television ads from the Republican National Committee. Although he claimed it was an exception under the soft-money ban, Mr. Lazio backed down and pulled the ads.
In the debate, Mrs. Clinton again charged her Republican opponent had violated the deal. “Last month Mr. Lazio said this was an issue of trust and character… . If New Yorkers can’t trust him to keep his word for 10 days, how can they trust him for six years?”
“Please, no lectures from Motel 1600 on campaign finance reform,” countered Mr. Lazio, turning to his adversary. “The fact is I took a legitimate contribution of clean hard money.
Onlookers were riveted when WCBS moderator Marcia Kramer told Mrs. Clinton that many viewers wanted to know why she had stayed with her husband after the White House sex scandal. The first lady shrugged her shoulders and said she had answered that question before “in various forms.”
She added: “For my entire life I have worked to make sure women had the choices they could make in their own lives that were right for them. I’ve made my choices. I’m here with my daughter, of whom I’m very proud. We have a family that means a lot to us… . The choices I’ve made in my life are right for me. I can’t talk about anybody else’s choices. I can only say that mine are rooted in my religious faith, in my strong sense of family and in what I believe is right and important.”
Her experiences, Mrs. Clinton said, would enable her as a senator to “stand up” for women’s rights, especially if pro-abortion legislation is in danger. “We’re still threatened that the right to choose might disappear if the wrong person is elected president or to the Senate.”
Mr. Lazio said he respected Mrs. Clinton’s decision regarding her husband and family. “The fact is, this race is about the issues, about who can be most effective for New York,” he said.
Two themes dominated the debate: Mrs. Clinton harked back to the congressman’s former position as deputy whip to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, repeatedly charging that he voted with Mr. Gingrich to “shut down the government.” For his part, Mr. Lazio hammered away at his New York roots and experience in Congress.
More than 130 media representatives viewed the debate on television monitors in an area marked with a sign that read “Spin Room.” Inside a nearby studio the two opponents faced each other standing in front of separate lecterns. The audience of more than 100 political figures included Republican Gov. George E. Pataki; Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who until May 19 was expected to run against Mrs. Clinton; former Mayor David Dinkins; and Mrs. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea. A panel of four journalists, one from CNN and three from New York newspapers, questioned the candidates.
In answer to a question about her failed 1993 health care plan, Mrs. Clinton smiled and said it was “a learning experience.” Mr. Lazio countered by saying her plan “would have been an unmitigated disaster for New York. No New Yorker ever would have written a bill that led to 75,000 jobs being destroyed … and the destruction of our teaching hospitals.”
A poll conducted by CBS on its Web site immediately after the debate found that 70 percent of those questioned thought Mr. Lazio had won the debate, while 30 percent gave the edge to Mrs. Clinton. In the latest Quinnipiac College poll, the first lady was ahead of the congressman 50 percent to 43 percent.