A specter is haunting the New York Senate race. It bears the name of the ghost of politics past, a demon of campaign seasons gone by. And though it was only Rep. Rick Lazio and first lady Hillary Clinton onstage in Buffalo, N.Y., last night, if you stared into the lights, squinted your eyes and just listened, you'd swear Newt Gingrich was up there with them.
As Clinton and Lazio met for the first debate of the New York Senate race Wednesday night, Clinton tried to define her still mostly unknown opponent in terms of the former House speaker. While about half of the one-hour debate centered on minutiae of upstate New York politics, there were enough personal attacks and heated exchanges to make bloodthirsty spectators happy. Clinton made sure everybody watching knew that the boyish congressman from Long Island was once a part of Gingrich's leadership team. She took that proverbial whip and alternately tried to lash Lazio with it and use it to tie Lazio to Gingrich, the man who remains the Democrats' favorite boogeyman.
For his part, Lazio, too, came out swinging from the opening bell. Given a chance to respond to the first question Clinton answered -- one regarding her failed healthcare proposal during President Clinton's first term -- Lazio went straight for the jugular. "A New Yorker would never have made that proposal," Lazio said exuberantly. "It was an unmitigated disaster. The bottom line is, it would have been terrible for New York."
If Clinton's theme was that Lazio was Gingrich with a Beaver Cleaver face, Lazio hammered home the carpetbagger issue, continually mentioning Arkansas and his own New York roots. Lazio also tried to emphasize his record as a man of action. "This isn't just about talk, which is what my opponent does, it's about getting the job done," Lazio said. He used some version of the phrase "getting the job done" repeatedly throughout the night.
But one of Lazio's jabs landed below the belt when he responded to a question from moderator Tim Russert about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Citing a 1998 interview in which Clinton denied the president was having an affair, Russert asked Clinton if she regretted misleading the nation, and regretted blaming the Lewinsky story on "a vast right-wing conspiracy."
"That was a very painful time for me, for my family, for our country," Clinton said. "I've tried to be as forthcoming as I could given the circumstances that I faced. Obviously I didn't mislead anyone. I didn't know the truth. There's a great deal of pain associated with that."
But Lazio wasn't impressed, and launched an attack that seemed aimed at the wrong Clinton. He also defended a fundraising letter put out by his campaign that said, "The first lady has embarrassed our country."
"I stand by that statement," he said. "And I think that frankly what is so troubling here with respect to what my opponent has said is that somehow it only matters what you say when you get caught ... Blaming others every time you have responsibility, unfortunately, I think that has become a pattern for my opponent."
Clinton, for her part, tried to take the high road that served her well during the Lewinsky scandal. "I've been trying to run a campaign based on the issues and not insults, and I think we've just seen an example of how difficult that is," Clinton responded.
Indeed, Clinton's main challenge for the next two months is to make sure that she does not become the issue in this campaign. While Lazio tries to paint her as an untrustworthy political interloper, Clinton remains laser-focused on specifics and on trying to cast Lazio as a right-wing puppet.
With two recent polls showing the race in a statistical dead heat, the debate comes at a crucial juncture in the campaign. Underscoring one of the campaign's ironies, it is Lazio, the candidate with an actual voting record, who remains the unknown, while Clinton, who has never held elected office and is a newcomer to the Empire State, is a known commodity to voters.
Lazio has harped on the carpetbagger issue since Day 1 of his candidacy. And a new ad by the American Conservative Union hit New York airwaves this week, hammering home the message of Clinton as an outsider.
The spot shows five infants as the narrator says, "In New York, all babies like these have something in common." The screen then shifts to a baby wearing a New York Yankees cap, and the narrator continues, "They've lived here longer than Hillary Rodham Clinton."
Russert asked Lazio about another ad, run by the New York Republican Party, that caused a stir early in the campaign. The ad implied that Lazio and outgoing Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had worked together on legislation, and even pictured a split-screen image that made it look as if the two men were walking together in the halls of Congress. Moynihan wrote a scathing letter to Lazio, asking him to pull the ad. "That ad did not come out of my campaign. We would never have created or aired that commercial," he said.
But that didn't stop Lazio from challenging Clinton to renounce all soft-money ads. Pulling a piece of paper from his jacket pocket, he crossed the stage, took out a pen and challenged Clinton to sign a pledge to not run soft-money spots for the remainder of the campaign. "It's the height of hypocrisy to talk about soft money when she's been raising soft money by the bucket load out in Hollywood and spending all that money on negative advertising," Lazio said.
Clinton responded that she would sign the pledge if Lazio produced signed agreements from "all [his] allies" who plan to run independent-expenditure ads on Lazio's behalf.
But Lazio's challenge came at the debate's ending bell, and Russert stepped in to separate the two political pugilists. While Lazio's team quickly claimed victory, clearly this contest is only going to get nastier.