- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. Rep. Rick Lazio, facing off with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the first time in their New York Senate battle, pulled a contract from his pocket that called for sweeping campaign finance changes.
"I'm ready to do this today," Mr. Lazio said, waving the one-page agreement that calls for an end to the use of all "soft money" and advertising funded by any group other than the campaigns.
Mrs. Clinton, not amused by what she regarded as a bit of theater, said: "I admire that, it was a wonderful performance." She declined to sign the agreement.
Mr. Lazio shot back: "I'm not asking you to admire me. Just sign it."
It was a fitting end to a feisty give and take last night that has been only hinted at in television and print ads.
The two walked into the studio deadlocked in the polls. They walked out of the 50-minute debate hot-wired to campaign fervor that has already been notable for its acrimony. They are running to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, who is retiring.
Mr. Lazio stood firm and even frowned when challenged by the first lady on his stances on health care and Social Security.
And when he got his turn to speak, he gave as good as he got.
Mrs. Clinton attacked the Long Island congressman's supposed allegiances to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying Mr. Lazio voted against 200 health care groups on the patients' bill of rights in favor of Mr. Gingrich's wishes.
"Chutzpah," Mrs. Clinton called it disparagingly. "He tells us he's a moderate mainstream member of Congress… . Well, he voted to shut government down, and he voted for the biggest education cuts in history. He stood with Newt Gingrich, he stood with the Republican leadership."
Mr. Lazio fired back: "Mrs. Clinton, you of all people shouldn't try to make guilt by association… . Mr. Gingrich isn't in this race, I'm in this race."
Last night's event was moderated by NBC's "Meet the Press" host and Buffalo native Tim Russert, along with two local reporters. A studio crowd of 300 persons submitted questions before the event and the network solicited other questions via e-mail over the past several weeks.
The pair fielded a total of 12 questions, often restating what their ads and press statements have said. Health care, education reform and job training, for example, have been the cornerstones of Mrs. Clinton's message.
"Hillary was talking very solidly and substantially," Clinton pollster Mark Penn said after the debate. "I think [Mr. Lazio] attacked her. He called her an embarrassment. But we were happy with the way things went."
Mr. Russert appeared to stun the first lady by showing a series of video sound bites from 1998, when Mrs. Clinton defended her husband amidst reports he had sexual relations with intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Obviously, I didn't mislead anyone," she said. "I didn't know the truth and there's a great deal of pain associated with that. That was a very painful time for me, for my family, for our country.
"My husband admitted that he misled the country as well as his family."
Mr. Lazio didn't hesitate to seize the situation after noting that his opponent called the effort to find the truth a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
"The first lady embarrassed the country," he said.
Other questions pertained to the health of the upstate New York economy, the future of Medicare and the inclusion of prescription drugs in that program and a strike by teachers in Buffalo.
The two did not shake hands at the end of the debate. Mr. Lazio walked to the front row of the audience and hugged his wife, while Mrs. Clinton shook hands with Mr. Russert.
Mr. Lazio then met reporters and offered his view of his poll ratings, which have been slipping in recent weeks.
"The only poll I care about is in November," he said, smiling. "I expect a lot to change between now and November."
"The state was enriched by this and it was a draw," said pollster John Zogby. "Lazio went on the offensive and that's what he needed to do. And Hillary was good on the issues."
Added Laird Robertson Jr. of Buffalo: "It was great television, great politics." He said he has supported candidates from both parties in the past. "I was surprised at his aggressiveness. He stated his case well and finally fought back."
Supporters of both candidates said their candidate won.
"She refused to be swayed by the little guy, Lazio," said Dorothy Usher Betz, who chairs the Madison County, N.Y., Democratic Committee. "He acted intimidated. He wasn't smooth."
Others thought Mr. Lazio won.

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