New York Times
September 14, 2000

Mrs. Clinton Wins Admiration for Fair-Mindedness in Debate


CORTLANDT MANOR -- Hillary Rodham Clinton won the admiration, and perhaps the support, of a small group of undecided voters tonight for what they called her assured, substantive and good- natured performance in a high stakes face-off with Representative Rick A. Lazio.

Doug Taggart, vice president of a financial services company who lives in this northern Westchester suburb with his wife and two daughters, was typical in his assessment of the first debate in this pivotal race for the United States Senate.

"If one were to say who was senatorial, it is she," Mr. Taggart said of Mrs. Clinton. "He came off as a much more immature person, and she came off very collected. And she was warmer than I've ever seen her."

Mr. Taggart, one of a panel of undecided voters drawn from early New York Times/CBS News polls, has been discussing his thoughts, wishes, hopes and disappointments as this Senate race has unfolded. And while the debate tonight did not put him firmly in Mrs. Clinton's camp, it surely pushed him close to a decision.

The same was true for Tom and Barbara Smith, a struggling working class couple in Saugerties, N.Y., who watched the debate from their local firehouse and took great offense at Mr. Lazio's attacks on his Democratic opponent. The Smiths, who have begged for a race free of mudslinging, said Mr. Lazio had set out to "destroy character" and "put people down" in a way that was both "cruel" and "not constructive."

Karl Schwartz, a computer consultant on Staten Island whose view of the race has been entirely driven by the fact that his wife has cancer, said that he ignored "the negative stuff from both sides" and continued to lean toward Mr. Lazio, because "he scores high in his commitment to helping cancer patients." But Mr. Schwartz gave Mrs. Clinton high marks for her "command of the facts" and her "comfortable and professional" demeanor.

"There is no doubt that she can work effectively as a senator, that she can express the issues well," Mr. Schwartz said, sounding agonized that his "one-dimensional" approach to a decision might be unfair to Mrs. Clinton. "I'll give Hillary one more chance to be specific about cancer," he said.

The two most dramatic moments of the hourlong debate, broadcast from Buffalo, were the screening of Mrs. Clinton firm defense of her husband on the NBC "Today" program in January 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Mr. Lazio's challenge, document and pen in hand, that both candidates sign a pledge not to use soft money.

Mr. Taggart, a well-read man of considered opinions, saw Mrs. Clinton's reaction to the "Today" tape, broadcast at a time when Mrs. Clinton said the president had lied to her as well as to the country, as a demonstration of grace under pressure. "It was obviously very painful to witness and respond," he said. "It made you feel for her."

He said Mr. Lazio's bravura move of presenting Mrs. Clinton with a pledge to eschew soft money was a no-win moment for her. She could not sign a document she had not read, he said. So, instead, she held firm that she would do so only if Mr. Lazio's supporters all avoided future soft money donations.

But moments of high drama aside, Mr. Taggart and the others were impressed by Mrs. Clinton's command of the issues and her self- control when baited repeatedly by Mr. Lazio, who led off almost all of his exchanges with an attack on her character. "She didn't let it become tit-for-tat," Mr. Taggart said.

Representative Lazio's task, as these voters saw it, was to present himself as a credible candidate and to showcase what many describe as his winning personality. Instead, Mr. Taggart and others said, he was unimpressive on the issues and testy in his attitude. "He had an opportunity to get people who didn't know him to like him," Mr. Taggart said. "I don't think he accomplished that, and it's a real opportunity lost for him."

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