Associated Press
May 20, 2000

Lazio Announces Senate Candidacy


WEST ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) -- From the gym of his former high school on Long Island, relatively unknown Republican Rep. Rick Lazio catapulted himself Saturday into the nation's most-talked about political campaign -- the Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

''You can tell from my accent that I am a lifelong New Yorker,'' Lazio said in an obvious swipe at the first lady. ''I don't have to fake it. ... I've never needed an exploratory committee to help me figure out where I wanted to live.''

The official announcement, less than 24 hours after New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dropped out of the Senate race, launched the 42-year-old, four-term congressman into the national spotlight. He was scheduled to appear on the five major Sunday TV news shows.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew said Saturday that Giuliani's departure and replacement by Lazio improved Clinton's chances of winning.

''Lazio is more conservative -- the lines (between Lazio and Clinton) are much clearer. He'll be an easier candidate to beat,'' Andrew said.

Lazio acknowledged facing an uphill battle against the first lady -- one poll already showed her with a huge lead over Lazio. But he sounded an optimistic note to supporters who sported T-shirts reading, ''Lazio -- Made in New York.''

''Here in New York, we love underdogs,'' Lazio told the cheering crowd. ''I can't call on Air Force One whenever I need a ride, but New Yorkers can count on me and call on me whenever they need something to get done.''

The location for Saturday's announcement was selected to emphasize Lazio's New York roots, a contrast with Clinton, who moved into Westchester County, north of New York City, just five months ago after declaring her intention to seek the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The announcement had a small-town feel, with red, white and blue balloons inside the gym of West Islip High School. The crowd cheered throughout the speech by the boyish-looking Lazio, who ran track at West Islip before graduating in 1976.

Top Clinton adviser Harold Ickes on Friday branded Lazio a puppet of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and ''the rest of the radical Republican leadership.''

Lazio wasted little time in shooting back.

''My opponent is a liberal and a proud one, and I respect her for that,'' Lazio said. ''But make no mistake, she is no more a new Democrat than she is a New Yorker.''

Giuliani, who found out last month that he has prostate cancer, dropped out of the Senate race Friday, saying he wanted to put his health first. That shifted attention to Lazio and fellow Long Island congressman Peter King, but King backed off plans to run and instead endorsed Lazio on Saturday.

Lazio starts the race far short of Clinton in campaign funds. He has raised $3.5 million, compared with $12 million for the first lady. However, it is possible under campaign finance laws that Lazio could receive at least some cash from the Giuliani campaign's $20 million warchest.

Lazio has earned a reputation as an energetic lawmaker, despite being largely unknown and untested outside his district.

He is a pro-death penalty Roman Catholic and while he supports abortion rights generally, he's against Medicaid funding for abortions and the late-term procedure that opponents call ''partial birth'' abortions.

He boasts a strong environmental record, supports gun control measures and is fiscally conservative. Asked by Republican House leaders this year to take the lead on a minimum wage increase, Lazio pushed to include tax breaks for businesses, making the package acceptable to his more conservative GOP colleagues.

Clinton was nominated as the Democratic Party candidate on Tuesday. The state GOP nominating convention is May 30.

''I would like to welcome to Congressman Lazio into the race for the Senate,'' Clinton said during a stop Saturday in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., at a Boys and Girls Club award ceremony. ''I'm looking forward to a real discussion with him of the issues.''

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