Catching Up With Hill And Rick

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrive to watch Prince William as he takes part in The Sovereigns Parade at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on Friday, Dec. 15, 2006. There were 446 Officer Cadets in the parade, of which 227 graduated and 14 different countries armed forces were represented.
Getty Images/Julian Herbert
The once-hot New York Senate race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio seems to have settled into late summer doldrums.

Despite the candidates' energetic stumping and daily messages, there's no discernible movement in the polls or in the water-cooler quotient by which we measure voters' interest level.

The first lady's candidacy promised daily steak tartar for the ravenous New York press pack. But she's shown she can be as tiresome as any politician, even Lazio, the self-proclaimed "real New Yorker."

This week, Hillary and Rick served up a bland she said-he said debate over who supports federal hate-crimes legislation more.

Flip-flopper! she charged. Lightweight! he countered.

Lazio also unveiled a $776 billion tax-relief plan that follows many of George W. Bush's proposed cuts.

Hillary's people dismissed the "recycled Republican tax proposal," urging Lazio to "buy a new calculator." The Lazio plan, they say, will really cost $1.24 trillion.

It was a disappointing week for scandal-mongers, too. The SEC, which had initiated a once-over of a conspicuously lucrative investment Lazio had made in a contributor's business, let him off the hook, making it likely that most of the titillation in this race will have to be exhumed from the Clinton White House's rich eight-year archive.

They're not giving us much to work with here, and it shows in the latest independent statewide poll.

Hillary inched ahead to a statistically meaningless 3-point lead in a Quinnipiac College survey conducted the first week of August; an effective dead heat, where they've been for over a month.

"The idea that either one can stand on their head and nothing changes is kind of unusual," says Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute.

The candidates did make different impressions at their respective conventions. Lazio kept a low profile at the GOP gathering in Philadelphia, where he and his fellow Republican members of Congress were more or less banished from the main stage.

Hillary, meanwhile, took her chances on a prime-time speech at the Democrats' shindig in Los Angeles.

"She wins that inning," says Carroll, who thinks Lazio only widened the stature gap by getting half wet at his party's convention. "The impression is she was up there with the major leagues and he wasn't around."

So when will things get interesting?

New York Democratic pollster Jeffrey Plaut, who is not involved in the Hillary race, thinks Lazio will have to stop throwing rocks and sell himself harder.

"Round one," says Plaut, "was Lazio stays off the radar screen and tries to make the whole race about Hillary Clinton. Round two was Hillary highlighting issues of importance to her - social security, health care, education - where she has an issues advantage, a kind of comparative campaign against him" that included her first television commercials.

"The pot-Labor Day part of the campaign is where Rick Lazio is going to have to say something about himself . . . The Lazio candidacy was a bit of a tabula rasa, and now it's starting to get filled in. And Clinton said, 'We'll fill it in first.' "

Plaut says not to expect hard-core negative campaigning just yet, while many voters are still vacationing. "Survivor can pull an audience during the summertime, but Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio can't."

But do expect the campaign to be increasingly focused on upstate concerns.

"There is a yearning on the part of upstate voters to hear anything candidates want to say about the lagging upstate economy," says Buffalo News reporter Robert McCarthy.

Between them, McCarthy and Plaut cite the high cost of utilities and air travel, property taxes, and breast cancer and related environmental concerns as local issues Clinton and Lazio may adopt to win over upstate voters.

"They're two Sumo wrestlers with their electoral arms around each other basically locked in a dead heat with [only] one in ten voters making up their mind," says Plaut. Targeting that narrow strip of undecided voters will be the campaigns' autumn caseload.

"There's no reason why it shouldn't go right down to the wire," says Carroll who remembers New York's last hard-fought race for U.S. Senate, the 1998 battle between Chuck Schumer and Al D'Amato, which was decided on the last weekend, with Schumer surging to win by nine points.

"Sometimes things happen," Carroll says. "Like a school of fish, everyone just goes in one direction."