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Buffalo Gal

The debate may have helped put Lazio back in the race -- but while pundits gave the congressman the win, regular voters seemed to finally thaw under Clinton's resolve.

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The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio demonstrated two facts of political life, one old and one just emerging. The old one is that, wherever a Clinton is concerned, the press's reaction will invariably be the opposite of the public's. To the press, Lazio won. The phrase I heard most often in the press filing room after the debate was "He held his own." This was, partly, an example of the manner in which the conventional wisdom can be comically self-fulfilling. For months, reporters and other insiders have been imagining the first debate and saying that Hillary, one of the great wonks of our era, would easily flash her superiority on the issues. By the time of the event, this had been repeated so often that any degree of performance by Lazio that distinguished him from the simian orders would be graded A-plus.

Lazio did show some spark last Wednesday. For the past two weeks, the Lazio campaign had been on its heels -- reacting to Hillary's attack ads, which have been reasonably effective; taking heat from fellow Republicans, who expressed displeasure at his lackadaisical pace; inviting application of the "lightweight" label; and dropping in the polls. But he used last Wednesday night to say, I'm not out of this yet. During his best moments -- his defenses of his voting record, his very good closing statement -- he did narrow the famous stature gap and show himself capable of handling the job.

But this, apparently, wasn't what the public saw at all. I'd imbibed the "held his own" view so thoroughly that, by the time I got back to my hotel room, I was shocked to see that the non-opinion-makers held a different view. The Buffalo NBC affiliate did a phone-in poll during its eleven o'clock newscast that found viewers called Hillary the winner by a margin of 70 percent to 30. The next morning, The Journal News/USA Today and the Buffalo News added weight to this interpretation. USA Today gathered eight Westchester County voters in Harrison -- a mix of Republicans, Democrats, and independents -- and all eight thought Hillary won. The Buffalo News gathered a similar cross-section of ten voters. Eight preferred Hillary, one liked neither, and one was a Hillary hater. Our local dailies had similar stories.

Shades of 1998, when two thirds of the public stood with Bill and four thirds of the big media wanted him gutted and stuffed? Kinda looked that way. True, phone-in polls and small focus groups of voters are unscientific. By the time you read this, science will have been applied to last Wednesday's proceedings, and we'll all know what we're supposed to think. But it's not unreasonable to suspect a hint of a trend in that 70 percent of Buffalonians who responded off the cuff. Which brings us to the emergent point. Maybe Hillary is finally, if nothing else, wearing down people's resistance to her.

She does not possess warmth of heart, at least that she's capable of showing in public, and she lacks her husband's emotive élan. What she has is determination -- to learn the issues and keep talking about them, to familiarize herself with the Taylor Law, which made a surprise appearance in the debate (it prevents certain public employees from striking), to go out there and see the go home! and where's monica? signs and wave and smile and give her little speech and get up the next day and do it all over again. Month after month after month. She may not be inspiring the voting masses, but she is Energizer Bunnying her way toward grudging acceptance.

Several women I spoke with felt the whole thing was awfully . . . male, that the Lazio-Russert tag team was a little much. Lazio might have pulled the same stunt on a male, but he never would have invaded a man's space like he did hers.

Lazio helped her in this regard with his attacks, because where she looked like the prepared student, he looked like the jock in the back throwing spitballs. The sign-my-pledge gimmick was tacky -- not to mention, according to an NBC spokeswoman quoted in the Buffalo News the following day, a direct violation of a promise both candidates had made to use no props. And when Tim Russert hit Hillary with those Monica-era video clips, Lazio should have realized that Russert had done his dirty work for him, and there was no need for him to pile it on.

We're going to start hearing more and more now about the undecided vote. The polling on this race since the beginning of time has indicated a small undecided bloc, 7 or 8 percent. When the race was Hillary vs. Rudy, it was totally up for grabs. But when the race became Hillary vs. Rick, Mr. Conventional Wisdom -- him again -- declared that this was to Lazio's benefit because undecideds "break," as they say, in favor of the challenger or the lesser-known entity -- in this case, Lazio. Such is almost always the case.

Some evidence suggests that this election might prove to be one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Jewish voters still tend to be more undecided than other categories. I write this before Hillary's appearance in Brooklyn with Joe Lieberman last Friday, but that event can't have hurt her. It might also have provided nice footage for a Lieberman ad of some sort. (Two weeks ago, one Hillary aide told me they planned on holding Lieberman back and using him to respond to the inevitable Suha attack ad; after last week's Rick-Yasser photograph, that attack ad somehow seems less inevitable.) And even before all that, her numbers among Jewish voters have been increasing.

And then there are the white women. Here the resistance remains the strongest. But it's also precisely where the debate may have helped her most. Several women I spoke with after it felt the whole thing was awfully . . . male, and that the Lazio-Russert tag team was a little much. And by the way: If you seek emblems of why women have a hard time getting elected in New York, preserve for your collection the covers of last Thursday's tabloids, both of which fell for the no-soft-money-pledge trick like tourists for three-card monte, in the process showing what high value the discourse of New York politics places on such macho postures. Lazio might have pulled the same stunt on a male opponent, but he never would have invaded a man's space like he did hers. And there's little question that, if a woman candidate had been as harpyish toward a male opponent as Lazio was to Hillary, the adjective of the day would undoubtedly be "shrill."

Campaigns, especially in New York, are not solemn forums for a discussion of the issues. They're obstacle courses. Tests of a candidate's personality, character, and drive. We know Hillary has drive. But Lazio does, too. To be a senator has been his great ambition in life for at least eight years, and probably longer. He Wants This Job, and he wanted it years before Rudy Giuliani ever gave it a moment's thought or Hillary Clinton brought the furniture out of storage to Chappaqua. Two people, one job. And they're both desperate to win it. Maybe, even without Rudy, this will be a great race after all.


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