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Rick & Hillary: Who do you think they are?

An exclusive new poll explores the perceptions and attitudes driving the campaign and finds that though Hillary would win hands-down on issues, character counts, too (but not precisely the way Lazio thinks it should).

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For sixteen months now, Hillary Clinton has based her Senate candidacy on one belief only: She will win on the issues. Reporters have tried, in a thousand ways, to get her to say something, anything, about herself, begged her to take part in that eternal New York campaign ritual that calls on candidates not so much to take positions as to embody and celebrate some aspect of our collective personality.

Hillary has run against personality. From the moment she entered the race, her advisers have believed that their guarded candidate couldn't win a personality fight, against either the bumptious Rudy or the nice guy Rick. But she could win an issues fight. So out they rolled, one after the other.

Rick Lazio's campaign has tilted toward talking about character -- more hers than his. You can't trust her, his ads have said. This election, he told reporters recently, will "determine whether or not character still counts in public service, whether or not integrity matters."

So with a month to go, which matters more? The results of a statewide New York poll conducted in late September suggest that, unlike in the presidential race, character trumps issues. The poll -- conducted jointly by the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, and the Polling Company, a Republican group -- found, for example, that respondents who like or dislike either candidate do so more on the basis of personal characteristics than of issues.

With his convention speech -- its march of issues and the "I'm my own man" line -- Al Gore managed to turn the presidential election into a race about substance instead of style. But Hillary couldn't quite do that in New York. First of all, she is, and to a certain segment of voters always will be, an issue herself. And second, too much focus on issues is not the New York way. Two Octobers ago, no one could say where Al D'Amato and Chuck Schumer stood on Social Security, but everyone knew who called whom a putzhead.

Character matters, but public emphasis on character issues is not the automatic winner for Lazio that one might assume. How can this be? For one thing, it's because the poll -- which has Hillary leading narrowly, by 47 percent to 45 percent, including leaners -- shows that the number of Hillary admirers is now equal to the number of Hillary haters. When people were asked, for example, whether their basic view of Hillary was favorable or unfavorable, favorable won, 52 to 43 percent. Within those categories, 28 percent had a strongly favorable view of her and 29 percent a strongly unfavorable view. These two groups now cancel each other out. "We've always felt," says Clinton pollster Mark Penn, "that there are a lot of people out there with enthusiasm for her. It's been one of the most undercovered stories of this campaign."

There's another reason, too, which is that it looks like people define character more broadly than the media does. Or at least that honesty is just one of several factors most people weigh in deciding how to vote. This poll shows that voters who like Hillary Clinton do so for a range of reasons, even if those reasons can be vague. When we asked people who viewed her favorably what it was they liked about her, 13 percent said -- well, they just liked her. Another 9 percent said they liked her because she was strong, 7 percent said knowledgeable, and smaller percentages gave answers like smart, caring, hardworking, capable, and poised. The reasons people didn't like her were mostly the ones you'd expect: not from New York, according to 24 percent, and not trustworthy, said 22 percent.

The attributes respondents said they liked about Lazio -- whose overall favorable-to-unfavorable rating was 45 to 36 percent -- were similarly mixed. To 22 percent, the best thing about him is that he's from New York; 13 percent cited his experience in office in New York, and 9 percent think he has new ideas. Among those who viewed him unfavorably, 9 percent said it was because he's attacked Hillary; another 9 percent didn't like his debate performance.

Character is further complicated by split decisions on which candidate possesses what traits. Respondents regarded Hillary as more ambitious (55 to 22 percent) and more out of touch (38 to 30 percent). And Lazio was indeed judged more honest, by 44 to 28 percent. But respondents also regard Hillary as more intelligent by 59 to 19 percent and more senatorial by 45 to 36 percent. So the verdict on character-related questions is actually mixed.

"Everybody wants politicians to be honest," says Jef Pollock of the Global Strategy Group. "But they don't believe politicians are by and large honest. So character is also about Is this someone I can like over the next six years and let into my living room?"

None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton has won the hearts of New York voters. But the poll results do suggest that, with her nonstop campaigning and bottomless desire for the job, she has worn away at some of the animus against her. We asked people why they thought, at this late date, she was running for the Senate. The largest number was "Don't know," at 29 percent. But 25 percent believed she was running because she'd be a great senator, and 17 percent said she was in the race because she cares about the people of New York. Sixteen percent said she was deflecting attention from her husband's impeachment, and 12 percent said she wanted to get away from Bill.

Also, by 40 to 15 percent, more people said their opinion of her had gotten better over the past year and a half than said it had gotten worse (42 percent said their view of her hadn't changed). People remain strongly divided, though, on her motive for running. Forty-two percent said she wanted to serve New York, and 46 percent said she was using the race as a stepping stone for the presidency.

And finally, the carpetbag still looms fairly large. When asked what their chief hesitation in backing Hillary would be, 32 percent said it was because she's not from New York, nearly double the "Clinton fatigue" number of 17 percent. The campaign has done little to eat into people's resistance to her -- the reserve of dislike is pretty much the size it's always been.

Those kinds of numbers are so-so for her, and because her campaign chose from the beginning to ignore her problems and hope for the best, so-so is about all she could hope for. But in the relentless drive on issues -- children, health care, more schools, new Medicare formula, upstate Internet access, media violence, Palestinian school books -- the Clinton campaign scored undeniable success. New York asked respondents which candidate would do a better job in six issue areas. Hillary won four of them, often by large margins: on improving schools, 52 to 35 percent; improving health care, 60 to 31 percent; protecting Medicare and Social Security, 52 to 31 percent; and getting the state its fair share from Washington, 47 to 36 percent. Lazio prevailed only on lowering taxes, a gimme for any breathing Republican, by 48 to 27 percent, while creating jobs in New York State came out a statistical tie.


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