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The Soft Corps

Almost as soon as he found the crucial issue that could make him more than "Not Hillary," Rick Lazio's deal with partisan supporters threatened to fall apart.

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Ever since the thoroughbred went down in late May and the young pony galloped onto the track, Rick Lazio's basic job has been very simple: Give voters one thing, just one thing, to grab on to aside from the fact that he's Not Hillary.

Being Not Hillary was always going to get him 42 to 45 percent of the vote. But it was always going to get him only 42 to 45 percent. To attract the other six to nine, he had to do something to make voters think, Oh, yeah, Lazio, the guy who wants vouchers. Or whatever.

One thing. Doesn't sound like it should be so hard, does it? But Rick has made it look hard. His first swing came in late August with his tax-cut proposal. But the newspapers said his numbers didn't hold up, and the hefty cost -- $776 billion in his press releases, $1.1 trillion in the actual world -- left him open to the Hillary response that the surplus could better be spent on smaller tax cuts and prescription-drug benefits. The second strike came two weeks later in Elmira, when he unveiled an education plan that got the kind of reception you'd expect for an education plan unveiled in Elmira. One-day story, page 16.

Then Lazio seemed to find his issue. Viewers of the Buffalo debate weren't crazy about the pushy way he presented his soft-money-ban idea, but as the days wore on, the story changed -- with assists from the editorial pages of the Times and the Daily News -- from "He invaded her space" to "Hey, this is a good idea." Nine out of ten voters may not know what soft money is, but that's an imbalance that speeches, ads, news stories, and editorials can change. Last week's initial newspaper stories announced that Lazio was gaining momentum -- that most precious of late-September commodities -- and the moral high ground. With Election Day just six weeks off, Lazio suddenly looked as if he might ride the soft-money bandwagon straight through to victory.

Then, just as suddenly, the deal was on life support. As I write these words, the Lazio campaign is having trouble keeping its horses in the barn. The spokesman for a group called the Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Rodham Clinton told the News last Monday that the group would not abide by the ban. The Lazio campaign was leaning hard on the committee to change its position. If that effort has proved successful between my writing and your reading, then Lazio can still lay some claim to the moral high ground on the issue. (Of course, even on the moral high ground, one steps in the occasional pothole: Last Tuesday night, Lazio appeared at a Conservative Party event alongside Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, the Dark Prince of soft money, who once said that the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban would pass the Senate "over my dead body.") The Emergencistas -- whose committee includes Ed Meese, Lyn Nofziger, "B-1 Bob" Dornan, and Alan Keyes -- have pledged to raise and spend $9 million to stop H.R.C.

Campaigns that are starting to smell a little trouble around them tend to react by going negative. But this may be one of those times when the better idea is to go positive.

Also, last Wednesday night, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the pro-Hillary lobbying group that had expressed some of the gravest reservations about the soft-money ban, was scheduled to have a board meeting to decide whether to honor the deal. naral New York executive director Kelli Conlin told me earlier last week that the group is "of two minds" on the issue, wanting on the one hand to get its message out but concerned on the other about handing Lazio an issue to use against the naral-backed candidate, Hillary. Though naral's budget for this race is a mere $500,000, the group may still buy ads, using the Emergency Committee's resistance to justify its own decision not to abide by the ban. Everything would devolve into finger-pointing, and both sides would end up on the same old moral low ground to which they're accustomed on this issue.

In other words, unless something unexpected happened late last week, the deal fell apart before it started. And even if it survives, voters don't seem to care much. It leaves Hillary having dodged a bullet, but it leaves Lazio with the question Now what?

When Lazio became the Republican nominee, some insiders saw an analogy between the Senate race and the 1994 gubernatorial election. Then, you had Mario Cuomo, the incumbent who'd worn out his welcome. Now you have Hillary Clinton, the non-incumbent who never really had a welcome to wear out but who, in several poetic senses, fills the Cuomo role -- large, iconic, liberal, disliked. Then you had George Pataki, the unknown amiable guy from the 'burbs. Now you have Rick Lazio, the (see preceding sentence). So the races are similar. And you know what happened then.

Except that they aren't that similar. To be sure, Pataki's main selling point was I'm not Mario Cuomo. But he had two others as well: I'll lower your taxes, and I'll reinstate the death penalty. In those two simple issues, Pataki got at Cuomo's perceived weaknesses and, in the case of the death penalty, an unpopular position. At least as important, he managed to describe, in credible and understandable shorthand, the post-Cuomo era. It was a description that 49 percent of the voters -- Pataki didn't hit 50, but 49 was enough that year -- went with.

Lazio hasn't done what Pataki did, and it shows. A source who worked on the '94 Pataki campaign says that conservatives just aren't that fired up about Lazio, and, beyond that, "I sensed more anger among conservatives about Mario than I do now about Hillary." Poll numbers augment the story. In one poll that came out last week, the candidates were in a statistical tie among upstate voters, while in 1994, Pataki, the former aide says, "was up by twenty points upstate."

Campaigns that are starting to smell a little trouble around them tend to react by going negative. But this may be one of those times when the better idea is to go positive. "He needs a mix," says Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, "but it should be more positive about himself than negative about her. He needs to say, 'I'm for something that will work,' whatever that thing is, and he's got to dope that out."

This Sunday morning brings Debate Round II. Hillary will do what Hillary always does -- stick to her poll-tested issues and keep mentioning Newt Gingrich. The one to watch will be Lazio. Will he go pit bull or spaniel? And will he come off as more than Not Hillary? If he does, it's still very much a race, and if he doesn't, all those people threatening to leave the state if you-know-who wins may want to start flipping through the Hoboken real-estate shoppers.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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