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The N-Word

Who went negative first? Who cares? The real problem is that both candidates are running safe, one-dimensional campaigns.

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So we've entered the inevitable Officially Nasty phase of the campaign. It arrived, in comparison to your average campaign, at least three weeks early; but by the logic of this baggy marathon of a race, the only surprising thing is that it didn't hit a little earlier. The Officially Nasty phase includes, almost as if by law, an inning or two of finger-pointing about who "went negative" first, in an effort to claim some sort of moral high ground that of course doesn't exist in campaigns. This, too, is unsurprising, except that it has to be said that the Lazio camp is the hands-down winner of the René Magritte ceci n'est pas une pipe, Surrealism-in-Advertising Award for taking last week's attack ad against Hillary Clinton -- which carried so much negative voltage that the Daily News put it on its front page -- and titling it positive. (The title of that famous Magritte painting, interestingly enough, is The Treason of Images.)

But behind the attacks, and the attacks about the attacks, the real air war is unfolding, and getting far less attention. And the real air war boils down to this: positions versus personality.

Mrs. Clinton's camp is running ads that are all about, you might say slavishly about, the issues. Hillary on prescription drugs; Lazio on prescription drugs. Hillary on a patient's bill of rights; Lazio on a patient's bill of rights. Hillary and her responsible tax cuts; Lazio and his irresponsible tax cuts.

There are justifications for this approach, one that the Clinton team is happy to talk about, and another about which candidate and campaign are in near-total denial. The happy-talk reason is that all available knowledge indicates that a majority of New York voters agree with her on most of these things and not with him. The issues are Hillary's wheelhouse, and as long they remain so, Team Hillary will keep tossing its pitches directly in that friendly zone.

Going back to the spring, Hillary's advisers apparently made a conscious decision to avoid dealing with the various, ah, unique difficulties she faces in this campaign. She would run on issues alone.

The second reason, though, is and has always been the great un-navigable channel for Hillary's campaign, against both Rudy and Lazio. That is to say, issues are all she has. Going back to the spring, Hillary's team of advisers apparently made a conscious decision to avoid dealing with the various, ah, unique problems she faces in this campaign. She would try to persuade voters on the issues and hope at the end of the day that when they walk into the booth, they'll be thinking less about carpetbaggerism and why they don't like her and whether she's actually committed to living in New York and how she really feels about Bill than they will about the Supreme Court.

Hillary may yet win just on the issues. But the strategy comes with three great risks -- which is an amusing paradox, given that Hillary's campaign is the most risk-averse and conservative (in playbook terms rather than ideological ones) I've ever seen. The first is that pinning Lazio down on the issues isn't easy. The thing about Lazio is not that he lives and dies by right-wing beliefs, as the Clinton campaign tries to suggest when it links him to Newt Gingrich. It's that he lives and dies by no beliefs. There is no other explanation for his voting record, which includes votes for and against the exact same measures at different points in his career, depending on which way the sea was rolling at the time. That he is a no-winger, not a right-winger, is what's true and credible about the man, but the Clinton team has yet to press that argument.

Second, the voters have to decide that an election is in fact about the issues. This has happened, against mighty odds, in the presidential race. For months, the presidential election was about Bill Clinton and the Monica mess and whether Al Gore was too much of a toady and too stiff. But wham, Gore gets up in Los Angeles and talks specifics, and though the pundits didn't respond, the voters did, and suddenly, the presidential election is about health care and economic stewardship and Medicare and all the things Gore wants it to be about. It happened because there was a potential sentiment among the voters in favor of an issues discussion that Gore's excellent convention speech made kinetic. Nothing like that has happened yet in this Senate race, and it's largely up to Hillary to make it happen.

The third risk lies in the fact that two out of five American voters don't hate Al Gore, whereas two out of five New York voters . . . you know what I mean. Evidently her campaign people believe they can just ignore this. Seen those Ford Motor Company ads, with the CEO standing up there apologizing over the Firestone business and promising to make it right? Reasonably effective, aren't they, insofar as they more or less straightforwardly acknowledge an unpleasant reality? Team Hillary, on the other hand, has been about denying unpleasant reality.

As for Lazio, he'd be happy as a schoolboy in June if the word issues never came up. Just tell people they can't trust Hillary, keep smiling, cart the little daughters around, let people keep on mispronouncing your name (what's important is that they know her name), and stay away from issues at all costs.

That tax-cutting proposal, aside from being textbook Lazio ("Hey, I have an idea: George W's cut is too big for New York, so let's not endorse that; but Gore's is too small, because he is after all a Democrat, so let's be all things to all people and split the difference!"), was a real boner. Aside from the fact that the numbers don't add up, tax relief doesn't pack the punch with swing voters that it did a few years ago, and you'd think that the Lazio people and supposed genius Mike Murphy would have some grasp on the fact that they have to position him somewhere in the middle. The tax-cut thing just plays into Team Hillary's attack strategy, and it wouldn't surprise me if the lesson the Lazio campers take away from the tax-cut-proposal stink bomb is to go the rest of the race without making one more substantive proposal. They know they can't win on issues. That, too, is a form of denial, and arguably a more cynical form, inasmuch as we all agree, or purport to agree, that people should vote on a candidate's positions instead of on his smile.

The question is whether people really do. A few weeks ago I was on a panel with some of the other reporters covering this race. Ray Strother, one of the original wise men of the political-consulting business, stood up to ask a question, or to make a point: I've generally found, he said, that voters basically make up their minds early on in a race, based on whether they like a candidate, and that "issues end up being excuses" for voting for or against the person they already like or don't like. With one candidate staying with issues out of fear of everything else, and the other candidate talking about everything else out of fear of issues, this race may be the ultimate test of the Strother theorem -- that is, unless one of these careful candidates successfully ventures onto the other's turf. Whatever the case, this, and not who's nastier, will be the air war to watch.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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