BUFFALO, N.Y. - With new polls showing the first lady edging into the lead, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican rival in New York's Senate contest tangled in their first televised debate last night over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the influence of millions of dollars worth of soft-money ads in their race.
During an often testy and sometimes personal debate, Rep. Rick A. Lazio, a Republican congressman from Long Island, challenged Clinton to sign an agreement to forgo raising and spending unregulated soft money for the rest of the campaign.
"If you agree to do this, we'll be making a huge statement about character and trust to the rest of the country," said Lazio, who pulled a copy of the agreement from his inside coat pocket and tried to thrust it into her hands in a bit of political stagecraft.
"That was a wonderful performance, and you did it very well," Clinton responded, with a laugh, after her Republican opponent had accused her of raising "buckets" of soft money in Hollywood.
She shook his hand, while effectively rebuffing his offer by demanding that he obtain written agreements from independent groups not to spend tens of millions of dollars on his behalf.
The fast-moving debate included a moment of unscripted drama when the moderator, Tim Russert of NBC, asked Clinton whether she regretted "misleading" the nation about her husband's behavior after the Lewinsky scandal broke and whether she would apologize for characterizing the Clintons' critics as members of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
With a resigned shake of her head, Clinton responded haltingly, "Obviously I didn't mislead anyone."
"I didn't know the truth," she said. "And there's a great deal of pain associated with that."
Sidestepping the question of an apology, she said, "I wish that, uh, we could all, um, look at it from the perspective of history, but we can't yet. We're going to have to wait until those books are written."
Then she turned her answer into an assault on her opponent. "I'm standing here running for the Senate. I didn't cast the votes that Newt Gingrich asked me to cast," she said, in one of her recurring campaign themes.
Lazio, unwilling to let the Lewinsky issue pass, pressed the attack: "I think that, frankly, what's so troubling here ... is somehow that it only matters what you say when you get caught," he said.
"And character and trust is about well more than that and blaming others every time you have responsibility. That has become a pattern for my opponent, and it's something I reject and I believe that New Yorkers reject."
The high-stakes encounter began on a cordial note, as the two candidates posed, smiling and shaking hands, for several seconds. But when the hour ended, there were no handshakes.
Lazio walked to the front row of the audience and hugged his wife, Patricia. Clinton, whose husband was home at the White House, stepped to Russert's lectern and greeted him.
Maurice Carroll, a veteran analyst of New York politics, now at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said that neither candidate made a major gaffe last night and "there were no knockouts."
In recent weeks, Clinton's candidacy has received a significant lift from Vice President Al Gore's soaring popularity in the presidential contest in New York. A new statewide survey showed Gore widening his advantage over Republican George W. Bush, to 25 percentage points among likely voters.
Clinton, meantime, has pulled into a lead of between 2 and 5 points in the Senate race, according to the latest polls.
"The real question about the election is how badly does George Bush lose New York," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York.
"It's going to be a close [Senate] race, unless George Bush gets creamed here and loses by a million votes. For better or worse, the fate of both Lazio and Clinton is tied to George Bush.''
Clinton has been campaigning around this state for more than 14 months, and those efforts appear to have increased her popularity.
But she remains a polarizing figure. A clear majority of Lazio's backers say they are motivated more by their dislike for Clinton than by positive feelings for the Republican, according to a survey released this week by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"Basically, if you're voting for Hillary, you like Hillary," said Lee M. Miringoff, the institute's director. "If you're voting for Lazio, you don't like Hillary."
Doubts about Clinton's motivation in seeking the Senate seat being vacated by veteran Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan continue to be a drag on her campaign.
Republicans charge that she is a carpetbagger who is using New York merely as a way station for a future presidential run. To counter that, Clinton is pledging that she would serve out her entire six-year term.
Lazio has tried to exploit Clinton's vulnerability on the carpetbagger question by airing commercials that claim she's "done nothing for New York."
Last night, he elaborated repeatedly on that point, while underscoring, in a distinctly New York accent, his own ties to the state.
He tried to rebut her attempts to tie him to Gingrich, accusing Clinton of redefining the word "chutzpah" by using "guilt by association" to link him to the unpopular former House speaker.
"Newt Gingrich isn't running in this race; I'm running in this race," said the congressman, repeatedly reminding listeners that Clinton is a newcomer with ties to her husband's home state of Arkansas.
But those arguments have yet to persuade undecided voters to support him.
"He can't win just on carpetbagger," said Miringoff, who said that Lazio needs to give New Yorkers some positive reasons to back him.
Last night's debate was regarded as critical for both candidates, but particularly for Lazio. The congressman, a youthful 42-year-old, needs to close a stature gap with the much better known, and more polished, Clinton, say New York politicians.
A late entrant in the race, Lazio launched his candidacy just 3 1/2 months ago - after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City withdrew, citing health problems. Lazio remains little-known outside the suburban Long Island district he has represented since 1993.
The Clinton-Lazio encounter, at a TV station near the banks of the Niagara River, was expected to draw the largest audience of three scheduled debates in the Senate contest. It might have been Lazio's best opportunity to counter Clinton's efforts to define him as too conservative for this state.
In her campaign commercials, Clinton portrays Lazio as a Gingrich lackey. Generally regarded as a political moderate, Lazio did serve in the House leadership under Gingrich as deputy whip for four years.
"The Clinton campaign has been very effective in spending millions of dollars of soft money to distort his record," says Bruce Teitelbaum, the head of Giuliani's political action committee and a Lazio adviser.
The election could turn on a relative handful of voters who say they're still undecided, about 5 or 6 percent of the electorate, or roughly 200,000 to 300,000 voters statewide.
Clinton has picked up a surprising amount of support in upstate New York, a traditional Republican stronghold, where she has campaigned extensively. She also holds an overwhelming lead in Democratic-dominated New York City.
Lazio is far ahead in the suburbs but needs to do better upstate, analysts say.
Key voter groups that both sides are targeting include white women, who remain cool to Clinton, and Jews, who are not supporting her in numbers typical of Democratic candidates in New York.
Jewish turnout is expected to be maximized this November by the presence on the ballot of the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joseph I. Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket.
Tomorrow, Lieberman is to campaign in New York City with Clinton for the first time. Her strategists hope Lieberman will transfer to Clinton some of the excitement that his candidacy has generated among Jewish voters.
There are 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans in this state, which means that Democratic candidates normally start out with an advantage of 5 or 6 percentage points.
If Lazio is to overcome Clinton's lead, thousands of Democrats and independents who are supporting Gore will have to split their ballots and vote for the Republican in the Senate race.
There is some local precedent for that - in 1964, when Robert F. Kennedy moved to New York to capitalize on his famous name in the New York Senate contest.
Lyndon B. Johnson carried New York by 2.5 million votes that year. Kennedy, though he ran far behind the national ticket, won the same Senate seat that Clinton now covets by 720,000 votes.