New York Times
May 23, 2000

Undecided: New Rival, Easier Decision, Voters Say


With a new candidate in the race for the United States Senate seat from New York, the undecided voters being followed by The New York Times now expect a traditional contest between Democrat and Republican that will make their decisions simpler and more predictable.

Only one of them, Thomas Beck, a Long Island educator, declared himself unequivocally committed to the newcomer, Representative Rick A. Lazio of Suffolk County, the young Republican who is sprinting to broaden his name recognition.

The rest of the group was in watch-and-wait mode yesterday after Rudolph W. Giuliani's withdrawal and a weekend of hectic campaigning by his replacement.

"I'm open," said Doug Taggart, an independent voter from Westchester County and vice president of a financial services firm. "The good thing is, it will now be an issue-centric campaign. And there are clearer differences between the candidates."

Karl Schwartz, a computer consultant from Staten Island and another independent, also celebrated the more conventional choice. "The advantage to this is it's less about personalities," he said.

None of these voters, who were culled from respondents to New York Times/CBS News polls when only a sliver of the electorate was undecided, were impressed by the war of words over the weekend, when the Lazio camp criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton as a carpetbagger and the Clinton camp suggested that her foe was a Newt Gingrich clone.

On the carpetbagger charge, all agreed with Bob Harrison, a history teacher from Amsterdam, west of Albany, who said Mrs. Clinton had shed that albatross with months of dogged campaigning in every corner of the state.

"She has shown she cares," said Mr. Harrison, who generally votes Republican.

Mr. Harrison also spoke for the larger group when he dismissed the notion that Mr. Lazio had walked in lock step with Mr. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House. "I don't think he's as conservative as they're making him out to be," Mr. Harrison said.

"He was a young guy learning the ropes. Sticking close to the people in charge is just on-the-job training."

Mr. Beck, a quick convert to Representative Lazio, was most familiar with his record and said the candidate was "not locked into traditional Republican ideas." Defeating Representative Thomas J. Downey, a Democratic fixture on Long Island, required coalition building, Mr. Beck said, and energetic campaigning. And in the years since Mr. Lazio's upset victory over Mr. Downey in 1992, "I've seen him grow as a politician; he's not averse to looking at other people's ideas," Mr. Beck added.

If the labels of "carpetbagger" and "conservative" do not sway these voters, what will? The candidates' positions, the voters said, especially on issues that speak to their concerns, in detail, with price tags attached.

"Let's see some nitty-gritty," Mr. Harrison said.

Mr. Taggart said he wanted to learn more about Mr. Lazio's voting record on gun control, which Mr. Taggart supports, and his stand on tax cuts, which Mr. Taggart opposes.

Mr. Harrison and his wife, Cathy, a nurse and also a Republican, worry about the flagging upstate economy.

Dave Temkin, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers from Queens who works for a telecommunications company, will be looking for concern for "working people's issues, particularly labor."

Mr. Schwartz, whose wife has cancer, cares most about medical research and environmental perils.

All of these voters say they assume that these issues are more likely to be debated with Mr. Giuliani out of the picture. The mayor, they said, had behaved as if he thought he could run on his performance in New York City and dismiss campaigning.

Mr. Temkin is one of 11 undecided voters from around the state who began sharing their thoughts on this extraordinary election in January. Two dropped out of the project a few weeks back. One could not be reached for comment for this article. Of the eight remaining, seven say they are as up in the air as they had been, although for different reasons.

No longer do they feel themselves between the rock and the hard place of two candidates they despise, which is how most described themselves four months ago. On the Democratic side, their antipathy for the first lady has mellowed as a result of her campaign style.

On the Republican side, the voters now have to educate themselves about an unfamiliar candidate, but one who they say seems likable.

Mr. Temkin said he assumed that once undecided voters had a chance to study Mr. Lazio's record and performance on the stump, they would pretty quickly sort themselves out along party lines. "I'll look, but I'm not sure I'll bite," he said.

On the Republican side, Mrs. Harrison seemed likely to make a quick choice once she was better informed. "I had to ask my husband, 'Where does he come from?' " she said of Mr. Lazio. "But he sounds good. It would be nice to have a strong Republican candidate."

Independent voters like Mr. Taggart and Mr. Schwartz, and those who switch parties often despite their enrollment, like Tom and Barbara Smith of Saugerties, say they remain open-minded but certain that Mr. Lazio must make a mark quickly or drift from contention.

"He's going to have to do some serious catching up," said Mr. Smith, who works at Wal-Mart.

The Smiths, generally well informed, were behind the curve on the recent flurry of events because of many overtime shifts.

"I knew Giuliani was out but I didn't know who was in," Mrs. Smith said.

Mr. Smith noted that Saugerties lacked the news coverage of cities like New York or Albany, which had front-page stories about Mr. Lazio's first campaign swing. The Times Herald-Record of Middletown did not mention the new candidate until Page 11, after reports on a fishing derby in Kingston, N.Y., and the death of Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist.

But Mr. Smith, a curious man, hunted until he found the article. Its headline: "Lazio Overcomes Obscurity With Whirlwind Tour."

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