NEW YORK -- So far it's been pretty much a honeymoon for Rep. Rick Lazio in his debut as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat against Democrat Hillary Clinton. His boyish, open good looks and easy smile are well on the way to making him a new media star, and many New York Republicans express relief that the controversial Mayor Rudy Giuliani is off the ticket.
The latest poll by Quinnipiac University about a week ago showed Mr. Lazio catapulting into a flat 44-44 percent tie with the first lady, but the same survey indicated much of his support was anti-Hillary. Those who said they strongly favored him were only 29 percent to 16 percent who said they like him with reservations and 50 percent who said they saw his candidacy as a way to vote against her.
The honeymoon is not likely to last as the Clinton team and Democrats generally get Mr. Lazio in their sights. John Marino, the Democratic state chairman under Gov. Mario Cuomo and still an astute observer of the political scene, puts it this way: "Lazio has had his day in the sun. Now is the time to bring in the clouds."
Mr. Marino obviously refers to what inevitably happens to any political candidate who enters a statewide race with a relatively blank slate as far as most of the voters are concerned. Mr. Lazio has a record as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, a four-year state legislator and eight years in Congress. He will be accentuating the positive about it in the months to come, but the Democrats will just as aggressively be seeking out and articulating the negative.
Mr. Lazio says that's fine with him because his record is one of service to New York, whereas it's Ms. Clinton who has the blank slate so far on what she's done for her adopted home base. But there are aspects of Mr. Lazio's record not directly dealing with constituency service that the Clinton team sees as particularly vulnerable, such as his self-identification as a pro-choice candidate while opposing partial-birth abortions and voting against federal funding for abortions.
"I simply think that you can be for a woman's right to choose -- I'm not for the repeal of Roe v. Wade -- without subsidizing the right," Mr. Lazio says. "That's two different questions. I think it's an issue, but the biggest issues for people are education, jobs, taxes, the environment. Those are quality-of-life issues that touch every family every day."
In the first days of his entry into the campaign, some among the Clinton forces spoke confidently about a "stature gap" that the first lady gained when the mayor of the nation's largest city was replaced on the GOP ticket by a little-known congressman from Long Island.
Mr. Lazio brushes the notion aside, again emphasizing his New York roots. "I have something that the other camp doesn't have. That is a legislative record of legislative achievement." He cites public housing reform, work incentives legislation, assistance to the disabled, passage of an environmental bill affecting Long Island Sound.
Apparently, the Clinton campaign belatedly thinks there isn't much mileage in talking about a stature gap. One senior Clinton adviser says he would be cautious about raising it much anymore, partly because voters don't like to be told how they're supposed to vote. When former Sen. Al D'Amato first ran in New York, he notes, he was an obscure local official who had no stature but beat much more prominent candidates.
Mr. Marino suggests Mr. Giuliani's departure helps Ms. Clinton tactically because while he was her opponent "she was running for mayor of New York City, taking him on city issues. It made the first lady seem something less than a city councilwoman." With Mr. Lazio as her adversary, he says, the race becomes more a traditional issues contest between a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican.
Mr. Lazio, however, brushing off Democratic efforts to paint him as a Newt Gingrich stooge in the House, calls himself a moderate in tune with New York, citing his abortion stance. As the Clinton camp revamps its strategy against a new foe, the fight now shapes up not simply over the question of whether the first lady deserves to represent New York, but also whether Mr. Lazio can sell himself as a middle-roader.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.