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Which Rick Do You Pick?

Is Senate candidate Rick Lazio a Gingrich clone or a moderate? Altar boy, or shrewd infighter? There are plenty of Lazios to go around -- which makes him a formidable politician.

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The question is meant as a little idle chitchat as I walk into Rick Lazio's Capitol Hill office and meet him for the first time. "Hey, how you doing?" I say.

But the congressman who wants to be the next senator from the great state of New York answers with a weary exhale and a surprising solemnity.

"I'm doing okay, I'm doing okay," Lazio says, settling heavily into a chair. "You know, it's a, it's a, I don't know how you would characterize it, it's a, it transforms your life. Your privacy changes, you have to manage all the additional stress and intensity of it. Most importantly, I think, is, um, is just to kind of try and be yourself, you know. Just keep your sense of self. That's a lot easier said than done. People push you and pull you to try and conform to what someone else thinks you should be, and you just, it takes having your friends and family around saying, 'Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself.' "

Lazio has landed squarely on the central question. Is he "a friend of the arts" who helped save the National Endowment for the Arts, or the foe of "Sensation" who voted to strip the Brooklyn Museum of its federal funding? How can he be solidly in the mainstream of New York political philosophy and best pals with Texas right-winger Dick Armey? How can he serve up steak-tartare-Republican phrases like "the Hollywood elite" when one of his closest friends is a Democrat who is co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television?

The next morning, part of the reason for Lazio's somber mood becomes clear: The front page of the Times carries a tough story implying that Lazio's 600 percent profit from his first foray into stock options is the result of insider information from Lazio campaign donors. Lazio will attribute his big score to good luck, and the bad publicity to a vast left-wing conspiracy led by Hillary Clinton. But even if the stock questions are resolved, it will do little to answer that core question: When Rick Lazio is being himself, who is he?

"There are people who can stay true to their positions but are able to pivot and work across the board. Like Rick."

Since Rudy Giuliani's cancer and deeply weird romantic life thrust Lazio into the Senate contest in late May, discussion of the Long Island Republican has revolved around issues, policies, votes. "Trying to define Rick Lazio is like trying to screw-gun Jell-O to a plywood wall," says Tony Bullock, a Long Islander who has known Lazio for twelve years and is now Daniel Patrick Moynihan's chief of staff. "He wants to please everybody, so he votes different ways at different times."

"That's ridiculous," retorts Bill Paxon, the ex-Republican congressman from Buffalo. "People want to be able to say the Republican Party is a bunch of right-wing nuts, and the minute somebody steps forward who is slightly to the left of right wing, they say, 'Oh, they're just malleable. They couldn't possibly have achieved any success if they weren't political prostitutes.' It's obvious there are people who are able to stay true to their philosophical positions but have the ability to pivot and work across the board. Like Rick."

Lazio's votes can be stacked to prove contradictory points. Delineating the character of the man is more important and more interesting. Though both candidates are baby-boomers, they're from different psychic generations. Consider: 26-year-old Hillary Rodham was a staff member for the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. Rick Lazio was 16 at the time, a boy who revered his father -- and the elder Lazio, who knew the president, epitomized Nixon's Silent Majority.

Clinton, the product of polarizing times, inspires hate or love; Lazio, who came of age in the disco-seventies gap between the hippies and the yuppies, inspires like. Even Lazio's friends cite his amiability as his foremost quality, and then struggle to come up with a second distinguishing characteristic.

To win the Senate race, Lazio is counting on the deep reservoir of bad will amassed by Hillary Clinton. And that might be enough. But no matter how many people hate Hillary, Rick Lazio's fate will ultimately turn on whether he is finally able to become his own man.

The auditorium stage is crowded with silver hair and heroism. Five dozen American survivors of the Normandy invasion have gathered at the Long Island campus of St. John's University to receive awards from the French and American governments. The man bestowing the medals and firmly shaking each vet's hand is Congressman Rick Lazio. He's immaculate in a navy single-breasted suit. Lazio stands upright and delivers crisp salutes, genuinely humbled, partly because when he looks in the faces of the old soldiers, he sees his father.

The Army didn't send Tech Sergeant Tony Lazio to Normandy, but he did win several World War II medals. Then he came home to Long Island, married Olive Christensen, and opened an auto-parts store in Lindenhurst to support their growing family, first three daughters and then the son who inherited his love for politics.

"Tony was my right-hand man when it came to the hoo-rah, getting people excited," says Buzz Schwenk, chairman of the Suffolk Republican Party for most of the seventies, when the Suffolk GOP was at the peak of its dominance. "Rick's father was more hard-assed than Rick is. I'm not saying Rick takes a walk on anything, but his father was more strident. Rick kind of rolls with the punches better than his dad did."


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