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Clinton-Lazio debate ignites

The first debate between the candidates in New York's Senate race turns spirited.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio slashed into each other for nearly 60 minutes on television Wednesday night, attacking each other's credentials, integrity and political views.

Near the debate's end, Lazio walked over to the first lady, waving a piece of paper at her, and unsuccessfully challenged her to sign a pledge, on stage, to renounce the use of soft money in her campaign.

The confrontational approach of both candidates transformed this first matchup between them -- indeed, the first debate Clinton has engaged in as a candidate for public office -- into one of the sharpest debates between two candidates for statewide office in a generation.

Lazio, viewing Wednesday night as his best chance yet to introduce himself to New York voters, took after Clinton from the very first question and hammered her at virtually every opportunity for the rest of the evening. He attacked her as untrustworthy, and mocked her attempt to serve as a senator from a state where she had never lived until recently.

For her part, the first lady repeatedly sought to link Lazio to the policies of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, noting that Lazio voted with Republicans in shutting down the government in 1994. She attacked what she described as his "reckless" plan to cut taxes by at least $770-billion.

But perhaps the most striking moment of the evening came not with Lazio and Clinton, but with the first lady and the host of the debate: Tim Russert, the host of NBC's Sunday program Meet the Press. He showed a videotape from the Today show of Jan. 27, 1998, just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, in which Clinton defended her husband and denied the allegations that he had had an affair with a White House intern. Russert asked Clinton if she regretted "misleading the American people" and if she would "now apologize for branding people as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy."

Clinton, who has repeatedly declined to appear as a guest on Meet the Press, appeared shaken by the question. Her eyes turned down and her face tensed.

"Well you know Tim, that was a very, a very painful time for me, for my family and for our country," she said quietly at the debate, which was broadcast from a public television studio in Buffalo. "It is something that I regret deeply that anyone had to go through.

"I've tried to be as forthcoming as I could, given the circumstances that I faced," she said, her eyes still downcast. "Obviously I didn't mislead anyone. I didn't know the truth. And there's a great deal of pain associated with that and my husband has certainly acknowledged that and made it clear that he did mislead the country as well as his family."

The exchange came in a debate that had been viewed as a critical juncture for both sides -- and particularly for Lazio, who seemed intent on erasing any doubt among Republicans about the vigor he might bring to this contest against Clinton.

Lazio fairly leapt from the lectern as he went after the first lady, even after her response to the question about her husband's infidelities.

"I think that frankly, what's so troubling here with respect to what my opponent just said, is somehow that it only matters what you say when you get caught," Lazio said. "And character and trust is about, well, more than that. And blaming others every time you have responsibility? Unfortunately, that's become a pattern, I think, for my opponent. And it's something that I reject and I believe that New Yorkers reject. We can do well better."

It was Lazio who went after Clinton first. But the first lady did anything but turn the other cheek. Following up on Russert's first question -- on the failed overhaul of health care in 1993-94 -- Lazio attacked Clinton's effort to advocate a national health care system, saying that "a New Yorker would have never made that proposal" and that "the bottom line is, it would have been terrible for New York."

Clinton used his response to turn to what became one of her recurrent themes this evening: Lazio's political alliance with Gingrich, when he served as a whip to the House speaker. "Listening to the congressman's response reminds me of a word I've heard a lot this year: chutzpah," she said. "He'll stand here and tell us he's a moderate mainstream member of Congress. Well, in fact he was a deputy whip to Newt Gingrich. He voted to shut down the government."

Russert proved to be a tough questioner, though there were times it seemed that the debate here was on the verge of spinning beyond even his control, particularly when Lazio prodded Clinton to sign his pledge renouncing the use of soft money, the largely unregulated campaign contributions that have proven to be a major benefit for the first lady.

Clinton has raised nearly $23-million for her campaign, both through millions in soft money and in direct contributions, and Lazio has accumulated about $19-million in one of the most expensive Senate campaigns in the nation's history.

Lazio has, so far, not set up any soft-money fundraising committees on his behalf. However, he has benefited from spending by independent committees, presumably not affiliated with his campaign, which have been running ads in New York attacking Clinton. The first lady has said that she is willing to renounce the use of soft money, providing that Lazio obtains "signed agreements" from those committees promising not to advertise in New York.

In truth, a number of political analysts have suggested, given the complicated demands set down by both sides, that Clinton and Lazio were more interested in winning political advantage than in actually changing their campaign-finance projects. At the end of the exchange, the two candidates were talking over each other, with Lazio standing by Clinton trying to press the piece of paper in her hand, shouting "We need your signature!" and grinning.

"I admire that," Clinton said, an edge of sarcasm in her voice. "That was a wonderful performance."

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