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Lazio works on the 'who?'


WEST ISLIP, N.Y. - In much of New York, he might best be known as what's-his-name. Rick A. Lazio, the Republican congressman from Long Island running in perhaps the most-watched Senate race in history, has some introductions to make.

First off, he is describing who he is not. The man who will challenge the first-ever first lady Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, wasted no time over the weekend drawing sharp contrasts - branding her an interloper and himself a native son, calling her "far left" and himself moderate.

"Mrs. Clinton takes it to the extreme - I think she takes a lot of issues to the extreme," Lazio said yesterday. "I think I reflect mainstream New York."

He made this pitch at warp speed, brandishing his New York accent for a rally Saturday here in his hometown, offering up anti-Clinton barbs on the Sunday talk shows and then taking that message on the road on a two-day statewide campaign fly-around. The 100 percent home-grown, 100 percent Not Hillary theme is on T-shirts and street signs, and is expected to punctuate a New York bus tour.

Lazio finds himself in a game of catch-up after New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out of the race last week, citing health reasons.

Boyish and telegenic, Lazio could pass for a 42-year-old Cub Scout, not an in-your-face national figure like the mayor.

So the 8-year veteran of Congress has a problem. Voters outside the native Long Islander's district can't place Lazio's face. Bellmore resident Ron Miller, a longtime Republican who can talk a mile-a-minute about Giuliani, replied "Nuthin" when asked what he knows about Lazio. How the challenger will become a brand-name around New York is a lingering question.

To that end, Lazio repeated "Lazio," his campaign's Web site address, in local interviews and downloaded as much detail as he could from his career in Congress - portraying himself as a pro-abortion rights, anti-gun candidate who worked hard for New York's pet projects.

Lazio's friends came out in force this weekend, describing a man proudly lacking celebrity gloss who relates to voters better than the polarizing Giuliani.

'A regular guy'

"His greatest asset is that he's a regular guy," said Christopher Bodkin, an Islip councilman. "He's going to overcome all of Clinton's tinsel and glitter and show that he can get the job done, that he's one of us."

While the Republican Party is scrambling after losing the first-choice candidate, the obvious strategy is to tap into pockets of Hillary hostility.

Tartly summing up that sentiment at Lazio's kickoff rally, family friend Terri Allar said simply, "Over my dead body will I see Hillary win."

Lazio, a former prosecutor who entered politics at the age of 25, is building on such feelings by trying to equate Clinton's ideas with the same big-government programs that he says put New York in a recession in the 1980s.

Mostly, though, he is trying to paint Clinton as a zealous outsider.

"I didn't need a Senate race to commit me to New York," he told NBC's Meet the Press, suggesting Clinton wants a "steppingstone for national office."

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to brand Lazio as a loyal combatant for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, accusing him of standing behind the ousted Republican leader and his Contract With America and supporting an agenda of the far right.

To some extent, these attacks might not stick, given that Lazio has adopted mostly middle-of-the-road positions while in Congress.

Lazio voted for the Brady law, which requires background checks on handgun purchasers, and a ban on assault weapons - although he has not called for gun licensing and registration. He voted for the 1993 law that grants workers unpaid family and medical leave and for a raise in the minimum wage.

Views on abortion

A practicing Catholic, he favors abortion rights, but opposes a controversial late-term procedure critics call "partial-birth abortion." He also opposes public funding of abortion.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's campaign spokesman, called Lazio a "multiple choice" candidate on abortion who picks opportunistic positions. Wolfson said Lazio is already running a negative campaign: "He had a chance to take the high road. He chose to take the low road right off the bat."

Unlike Giuliani, who had alienated some New York power brokers, Lazio is likely to gain the state's significant Conservative Party endorsement. But it is unclear how Democratic and independent swing voters - critical for a GOP victory in a statewide race - will react to the newly minted candidate.

"Just because you do a good job as a congressman, are you worthy of being senator?" said Mark Weiss, 52, a salesman from West Babylon, N.Y., who described himself as an on-the-fence Democrat. Over coffee at the Delphi Diner in Lazio's district, he added, "I still think Hillary Clinton supports the everyday working type."

On Long Island - whose most famous local personality might have been Joey Buttafuoco - supporters were attempting to make Lazio a household name.

At the temporary Bay Shore headquarters, workers nearly pulled all-nighters, trying to figure out how to transfer calls, printing campaign signs and dreaming up chants that rhyme with "Lazio." As top-dollar consultants from Washington sped to this south shore suburb, local staffers watched in wonder.

"They brought in the big guns," said Belinda Groneman, who was the manager for the House campaign. "I don't know my title now. Call me an assistant."

'Feet on the ground'

Lazio, who talks of his "homegrown" New York wife and two daughters and says things like he'll "just keep smiling" if he is attacked, can seem goody-goodyish. But the less-polished image is one strategists say can win.

"Rick is not a celebrity candidate," said media consultant Mike Murphy, who worked for GOP presidential candidate John McCain and is joining Lazio's Senate bid.

"He's a feet-on-the-ground candidate. He'll bring the campaign back to the issues."

But a congressman with 152 plaques on his district office wall from local awards ceremonies is not equipped with the international stature of a first lady.

Calling himself an underdog, Lazio says he is used to stiff odds. In 1992, he was a virtual unknown when he entered the race against 18-year Democratic incumbent Tom Downey - a friend and close adviser to Vice President Al Gore. Downey spent $2.2 million to Lazio's $450,000. A dogged Lazio visited every shopping mall and senior home in the district, saying Downey was lost to the ways of Washington.

"He took on a huge challenge before and he thrived," said Andrew Siben, his campaign manager in 1992. "It was David vs. Goliath. He worked incredibly hard."

Hillary Clinton has amassed more than $12 million, while Lazio's campaign coffers currently hold about $3.5 million. But the money is coming in, with $400,000 on its way in the first 24 hours.

Even as some supporters say Lazio is getting too late a start, others are hopeful.

Across his district last weekend, Republicans were rooting for Lazio - from a gas station attendant to the staffers at the La Grange catering hall.

"He's young, he looks good and no one seems to have much bad to say about him," said Joe Salvati, a disc jockey preparing for a Bat Mitzvah party. "I would've backed him over Giuliani from the beginning."

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