New York Times
June 2, 2000

Lazio Finding it Tough to Stick With the Script


MAMARONECK, N.Y., (AP) -- As Representative Rick A. Lazio set out from the Republican convention in Buffalo, the immediate concern of his Senate campaign was not what he said, but how he was photographed. Everywhere Mr. Lazio went -- a vineyard in the Finger Lakes yesterday, a suburban schoolyard here today -- his staff members vigorously stage-directed the candidate and the news media, seeking the best photographs of Mr. Lazio's inaugural bus tour.

Most important, Mr. Lazio was advised to refrain from attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton, because they might distract from these carefully arranged images.

That restraint lasted for all of five hours. Just past noon on Mr. Lazio's very first day out, at a small sidewalk rally in Watkins Glen, the candidate's high-minded and deliberately low-octane discussion of education and the economy gave way to a mocking jab at Mrs. Clinton's book, "It Takes a Village."

By dusk, he was heartily attacking the first lady as a cloistered carpetbagger, suggesting that she was using the Secret Service to shield her from the press and the public. "We're not going to have a bunch of bodyguards to hide behind," he pledged.

The new Republican candidate for United States Senate has presented a conflicted message during these opening days of his campaign. At one moment, he has condemned negative campaigning and promised New Yorkers a candidacy grounded in his values and "mainstream ideas," a campaign drawn in a series of settings chosen to encourage picturesque, and not particularly weighty, coverage of his first official swing as a candidate for Senate.

But at the next, Mr. Lazio has gone after Mrs. Clinton with as much spirit as Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani ever did, before he quit the race for health reasons. "Being a New Yorker is more than moving into a multimillion-dollar house and putting on a Yankee cap," Mr. Lazio said at a rally by a golf course in Binghamton. Some of these discordant moments have even come within the space of a few lines in a speech.

Ideally, according to aides, it is the first Mr. Lazio that voters should be seeing for now. The strategy, one Republican said, is for Mr. Lazio, a Suffolk County Republican, to keep his guns holstered for the time being, allowing New Yorkers to get to know him for what he is and what he stands for, rather than as a harsh carrier of attacks on Mrs. Clinton.

To that end, he is intending to be somewhat vague and studiously noncontroversial, relying on carefully arranged pictures -- like eating a sandwich today at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side -- rather than words to get himself known.

That this task has turned out to be more than a little difficult is, in part, a reflection of the aggressive nature and relative inexperience of the 42-year-old candidate the Republicans have chosen to send up against Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Lazio, as Mr. Giuliani discovered when Mr. Lazio threatened to run a primary race against him, has a taste for political combat.

But this is only his first race for statewide office, and a key skill for any successful politician is knowing when not to say something, a lesson that often comes only with time.

Beyond that, the conflicting signals out of the Lazio camp suggest the difficult terrain that the candidate confronts as he enters this complicated race. If this contest is going to be about Mrs. Clinton's shortcomings -- and that is, to a large extent, what his aides want it to be about -- he needs to make Mrs. Clinton the issue, and one way is by raising questions about her credentials, philosophy and character.

The problem is time. In a more traditional campaign, Mr. Lazio would have had months to quietly establish his credentials, biography and record in the minds of voters, giving him the foundation from which to attack his opponent come the fall. But Mr. Lazio is getting a relatively late start, because of Mr. Giuliani's delayed departure from the race. Mrs. Clinton has been campaigning for a nearly a year.

And the candidate is facing conflicting pressures from inside and outside his campaign on how quickly to proceed, which no doubt accounts for the different faces he has shown during these early days of the campaign.

Mr. Lazio has surely noticed that the applause lines that he uses in more high-minded campaign moments -- "We don't want to export any more of our children out of state, do we?" for example -- do not get quite the response from his audience (or the reporters covering him) as when he lashes out at the first lady as an opportunist.

And senior Republicans in New York are expressing impatience with Mr. Lazio's emphasis on image over political substance, and are urging him to dispense with his slow wind-up.

"This is about connecting with the voters and identifying the candidate with the voters, as opposed to showing up in a nice picture on a daily basis for 30-seconds on the national news," a senior New York Republican said today as part of a generally unhappy assessment of Mr. Lazio's first run out. "There's a legitimate need to talk about Hillary's record and her stand on the issues."

Mr. Lazio and his advisers, in particular his chief strategist, Mike Murphy, are not known for being shy about going on the attack. But they are constrained by the history of candidates who have squandered their credibility by starting off on the attack, and this concern has been evident in the Lazio camp in the last few days.

Mr. Lazio has chastised reporters who have suggested in their questioning that he is attacking Mrs. Clinton. And Mr. Lazio's aides were upset with newspaper headlines that portrayed Mr. Lazio as going on the attack.

Mrs. Clinton's advisers are not strangers to tough campaign tactics and, sensing the Republican candidate's discomfort, have thrown marbles in his path.

"It sounds like Congressman Lazio's bus took a wrong turn off the high road today, offering New Yorkers more insults instead of ideas," Howard Wolfson, the campaign spokesman, said moments after Mr. Lazio made some critical remarks about the first lady.

For now, Mr. Lazio's aides said that he would continue to steer away from engaging Mrs. Clinton as much as possible, hoping that with experience comes restraint. And they are not even trying to conceal their intentions.

When Mr. Lazio was posing with workers at a milk processing factory in Syracuse early this week, one of his aides noticed that reporters were spilling into the picture and shooed them to the back of the room.

"We're doing this for the cameras," he declared."

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