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Stand and Deliver

Rudy pulls out, taking his negatives with him, leaving Hillary to face a low-profile but highly focused Rick Lazio. Now's the time for her to tell voters what she's running for.

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So last Friday, Rudy Giuliani did an astonishing thing. Not dropping out of the Senate race, which had been predicted off and on all week. But in a breathtaking turn, he did what aides, opponents, and editorial writers all over the city have been trying to get him to do for years. He addressed his biggest negatives -- arrogance, intransigence, and insensitivity, the touchstones of Hillary's campaign against him -- and swore he was going to fix them.

And then he dropped out of the race.

It was a head-spinning moment for state Republicans and a stock-taking one for Hillary's camp.

Enter Rick Lazio. Catholic, moderate, and from Suffolk County are three very excellent things to be if you're running for statewide office in New York.

He will presumably have the Republican and Conservative Party lines, and probably the Independent Party line. With the two minor parties, wham, just like that, he can stick about 300,000 votes in his pocket, maybe more.

Most of all, he changes the dynamic. For Democrats, Rudy was a fixed and rather huge target. A million black voters, and probably another million assorteds, detested him and would have sprinted to the polls to defeat him. Lazio may yet become a target, but for now he's a fuzzy one. And while it's true that there's a "stature gap" between him and Hillary, maybe the flip side of the stature gap is that, for a while at least, it would look unseemly for Goliath to do too much whupping on David. Lazio might just present Hillary with a different set of obstacles.

But she still has one problem she's always had, one that, in a way, Rudy's departure throws into even higher relief: Her campaign -- after spending around $6 million -- still has no message. She is indisputably a much better candidate than she was last fall. She's up in the polls from where she was then. She has touched the terra firma of all 62 counties. I can't remember a statewide candidate's ever doing that; it's all the more striking since she knows full well she has virtually no chance of carrying about 40 of them (rural, Republican, small).

Hillary can deal with the trust issue only by acknowledging it. . . . Some major speech. A well-placed interview. A slogan that implicitly accepts it as an issue. In words that come from the heart.

But to say she's hit her stride as a campaigner is like saying of a golfer that he's developed a pro-level short game. Developing a pro-level short game is one thing. Winning the Masters is another.

It's not that she has lacked specifics. Her plans for the upstate economy and secondary education and so on are thorough and seem pretty sensible. Her laundry list of things she's for and against is lucid and as long as a Dead Sea Scroll. But right now they're pieces of an engine littered across the garage floor. They're not bolted together in a high-torque package, and they have to be. However different Mrs. Clinton is from your average pol, she's still a candidate seeking votes, and people vote for candidates who have told them, with broad thematic strokes, This is my vision of the future, it's a better place, and this is why I'm the one to take you there.

"That's the key," says one Democratic insider. "She missed an opportunity during these weeks of turmoil with Giuliani to hone a message and come into the convention with a clear agenda."

"She's doing her best personally," adds a Democratic consultant, in putting in the hours and the study and the travel time. "But she's not insisting on a campaign that's doing the same."

Campaigns -- campaigns that win -- do that. Bill Clinton used "Putting people first." Ronald Reagan, in 1980, said, "The time is now." New Deal. New Frontier. And it's not just presidential races that need to do this. Chuck Schumer, in 1998, used "He's done more, he'll do more." Rudy Giuliani, in 1993, had "One city, one standard."

They're slogans, but they capture an idea and lead voters to make emotional associations. Take "The time is now." I had no enthusiasm for the candidate it celebrated, but I knew instantly what "now" was "the time" for: burying the liberal profligacy that was sending the country to galloping ruin, for hard work and abstinence and respectable hemlines. It reflected Reagan's core idea.

Hillary's campaign has yet to put forward a core idea. A person watching all this as closely as I have can't help getting the idea that the question of message is one this campaign is resolutely not asking itself, because to ask it is to invite discomfiting contemplation of the basic problem -- that many New Yorkers still don't trust this candidate's motives.

This problem can be overcome -- not with all voters, of course, but with enough to make the difference between losing and winning. But it can't be overcome by avoidance. And it can't be overcome by saying "we New Yorkers." It lands clumsily on the ear of virtually everyone I know and only reinforces the prejudice of those who dislike her.

Hillary can deal with the trust issue only by acknowledging it. You don't need to pay a pollster a few hundred thousand dollars to figure that out. Some major speech. A well-placed interview. A slogan that implicitly accepts it as an issue. In words that come from the heart (this is Giuliani's strength -- even when he's lying, he does it in such a plainspoken way that, to people who don't know any better, it sounds like it has to be the truth). Anyway, it shouldn't be that hard to do. Deciding to deal with it is hard to do.

Check out these numbers, unpublished, from a late-April poll by John Zogby. The Observer's Tish Durkin mentioned some last week; here are some more. The poll matched Hillary against George Pataki and five other Republicans, most of them scarcely known outside their county or congressional district. Hillary lost to Pataki and beat the others. That was no surprise. The surprise came when Zogby went back and did an aggregate count to find out who voted for Hillary how often and who voted for "generic Republican" how often. The result was that 37 percent of respondents voted for Hillary every time, while 44 percent voted against her all six times. Bear in mind -- most of these 44 percent were saying they'd vote for people they've probably never heard of. Among virtually every group that's most likely to vote, she's got trouble. Among senior citizens, 35 percent always supported her, 53 percent never did. Among the highest-income group (above $75,000), 33 percent always, 41 percent never. And so on. Because Zogby is the Post's pollster, Democrats like to naysay him, but his numbers ring pretty true to me and reflect what one picks up anecdotally -- that resistance to the Hillary campaign, while not what it was six months ago, is still something to be reckoned with.

Rudy, Lazio, King, a Herkimer County water commissioner: It makes no difference. Clinton insiders don't need to play that guessing game. They need to play Password, and the password is theme.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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