Rick Lazio: Is he or isn't he? And who the heck is he?

He's the man who might have been the next senator from New York. If he were a candidate. If he could beat Hillary. If Rudy weren't around.

Published August 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Rick Lazio is destined to be either the next U.S. senator from the state of New York, or the next trivia question. At the moment, the latter seems more likely than the former.

Lazio, a four-term congressman from Suffolk County, on Long Island, told reporters on Wednesday that he would hold off announcing his candidacy for the senatorial seat being vacated next year by Daniel Patrick Moynihan until New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani makes his intentions known. Lazio postponed the official Aug. 16 announcement of his entry into the race, but left the door of possibility open just a smidgen.

In the unlikely event that Lazio does run, and beats expected Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election, the Long Island lawmaker would of course be crowned king, at least by Republicans. And certainly he'd deserve the coronation -- because against tremendous odds he would have defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton, a major Democratic symbol who elicits mixed feelings in the electorate. But oddsmakers and seasoned politicians believe in a less spectacular scenario. Unless the Republicans can cease their infighting, observers see Lazio as the fall guy, the man
who will be blamed for losing a probably unwinnable contest.

Until fairly recently, the election, which is about a year and a half away, was supposed to be a showdown between the high profile, crime-busting, no-nonsense mayor and the even higher profile first lady: Hillary vs. Rudy, as the tabloids are fond of putting it. The baby-face smile of the 41-year-old Lazio was hardly in the picture. And actually, none of the three have officially announced a run. But as Giuliani and Clinton announced the formation of exploratory committees earlier this year, Lazio's name kept popping up with increasing frequency.

Who is he? Political insiders say he is crafty, ambitious and politically astute. At home in his district, for example, Lazio is known as a moderate because of his anti-gun-control and anti-abortion stances. But Barney Frank, Lazio's liberal congressional colleague from Massachusetts, once put it this way: "He personally says he is moderate, but as a guy trying to get ahead in the Republican Party he makes peace with very right-wing elements."

Lazio and his wife, Patricia, live with their daughters, Mollie and Kelsey, in Brightwaters, on
Long Island. The son of an auto repair shop dealer, the congressman (baptized Enrico Lazio) went to local schools on Long Island before graduating from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

After law school he became a prosecutor and then did two stints in the Legislature before challenging 18-year incumbent Tom Downey, then a political rising star, for his congressional seat.

Compared to Downey, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Lazio was a political nobody. But his usual smile turned to a snarl the minute the race began. Lazio quickly portrayed Downey as a junket-loving liberal luxuriating in the Caribbean. One flyer featured a photo of Downey tossing a football on a beach in Barbados, with a caption that read, "Tom Downey's limousine liberal's guide to surviving the recession." Then Downey's wife was attacked for her role in the House check-bouncing scandal a few years back. Before Downey realized what had happened, he was an unemployed lawmaker.

"I relish the role of the underdog," Lazio said. "I was down by 25 points to Downey one month before the election and I won." He also surprised some by voting for the impeachment of President Clinton. A few days before the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, Lazio accompanied the president and several other politicians on Air Force One to Israel. Most of those close to the situation interpreted the move as a sure sign the president had Lazio's vote locked up. But following the trip, Lazio thanked the president for the ride, told him how impressed he was with Air Force One and then all but called Clinton a liar in a scathing op-ed article in Newsday.

Next, of course, came the impeachment vote. But he defends all his actions in the matter with no apparent remorse. "My decision on impeachment was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made," he said. "But it was the right decision and I stand by it."

Lazio also appears willing to exploit a long-standing feud between Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki. Giuliani endorsed Pataki's Democratic opponent, Mario Cuomo, when Pataki first ran for the office in 1994. Giuliani's reasoning at the time was expressed in typically blunt terms: He told reporters he thought Pataki was a "puppet" of then-Sen. Al D'Amato. For this and other reasons, Pataki has been egging on Lazio from behind the scenes, urging him to challenge Giuliani in a primary. But when the governor, under mounting pressure from Republicans, decided on Aug. 6 to give Giuliani his rather tepid endorsement, he asked Lazio to await Giuliani's decision about running before formally declaring. Lazio complied with the governor's wishes in his press conference on Wednesday.

Most political insiders concede that the mayor has no real interest in being a senator. Republicans think Giuliani's feisty nature, ability to raise money and national reputation make him the best man to run against Clinton; but the mayor's real interest is in running for governor in 2002, say political pundits and others close to him.

Still, when Lazio suggested just that in an interview with the weekly Observer newspaper, it galled Giuliani backers. Lazio was quoted as saying, "The people of New York deserve to have somebody who isn't just seeking the Senate seat for personal power, for a temporary perch." "The nerve of that man," said one woman supporter of Giuliani who spoke on the condition she not be named.

Lazio, on the other hand, first expressed an interest in running about a year ago, reasoning that Moynihan was in his 70s and close to retirement. Lazio subsequently visited Giuliani to make his feelings known, realizing that Giuliani was a two-term official and perhaps also had an interest in the senator's position.

"I said to him that I was going to be traveling around the state and exploring the possibility of a run," Lazio said. He reported that Giuliani responded, "I have no problem with that."

Insiders believe Lazio was acting at the governor's behest, in order to smoke the mayor out about his real political intentions. But thus far he has not succeeded.

After Lazio's press conference, reactions were mixed. Lazio said he would wait until Aug. 31 for the mayor's decision -- which was taken by a Giuliani supporter, Staten Island borough President Guy Molinari, as "an ultimatum." Others, however, like Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, argued that Lazio "did what was best for himself." (If Lazio wins the Conservative Party nomination he could run as a third-party candidate.) Still others, like Republican fund-raiser and Giuliani backer Georgette Mosbacher, seemed frustrated, "I just want him out of the race." she said.

Lazio, on the other hand, seemed energized this week. He repeated his oft-mentioned contention that "Once I announce, I cannot imagine a scenario in which I will then drop out."

His familiar, baby-face smile was intact.

By Keith Moore

Keith Moore is a New York writer.

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Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani