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Defining Rick Lazio

The issues debate promised by both candidates in the Hillary Clinton-Rick Lazio Senate race hasn't materialized yet. Both sides have begun advertising, but neither is exactly saturating the Empire State airwaves.

In this news-free environment, a fund-raising letter sent to Lazio supporters that claims Clinton has "embarrassed the country" filled the news vacuum, if only for a moment, and gave Mrs. Clinton the opportunity to charge the Long Island congressman with "typical politics." (Not to be confused with the politics of the high road practiced in her television ads that warn, "Rick Lazio: the more you know, the more you wonder.").

The tempest in the direct mail teapot provided a brief diversion from the ho-hum daily routine of the Rick & Hillary show: Hundreds of miles north - and west - of The City That Never Sleeps, the campaigns are in the Dullsville, retail politicking phase of the race, puttering around to dairy farms, factories and Kiwanis clubs.

But don't be deceived. Clinton and Lazio are not enjoying a sleepy small town summer. They're both hard at work trying to define Rick Lazio.

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"The big picture," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for The Cook Political Report, "is who defines him first. This race is like a big mural. Both campaigns have a paintbrush and a bucket of paint. Who fills in the picture of Rick Lazio first - Hillary Clinton or Rick Lazio?"

With broad brushstrokes, Team Clinton is trying to depict Lazio as a tool of his party's hard-right leadership in Congress.

"Mrs. Clinton has gone from Giuliani's personality to Lazio's ideology," observes Mitchell Moss of New York University.

Clinton says Lazio, who's running on his "mainstream" record and values, "tries to be all things to all people." Referring to one of the smaller parties on New York state's ballot, Clinton asked, "Is he going to say one thing to the Conservative Party that's supporting him, and another thing to the so-called moderates that he is tryig to appeal to?"

It's important for Lazio to maintain his moderate identity in New York's suburbs. "This is a race fought in the suburbs. Right now Lazio has a decent lead there and he has to keep it," says Duffy. "You couldn't really have an issues race with Giuliani in the suburbs because [Clinton and Giuliani] agreed [on so many issues]. With Lazio in the race, it is more about issues than it was."

Moss predicts abortion will be the wedge issue. "Clinton is using the pro-choice issue to reach female voters," he says. "Her strategy is to mobilize minority voters and women voters."

Both Clinton and Lazio are pro-choice, the difference between them being a matter of degree. Lazio favors a ban on "partial birth abortion"; Clinton does not.

To Clinton, Lazio's stance is doublespeak: "He is pro-choice, he's not really pro-choice, he forgets to vote, he would have voted but he wasn't there. I think he's got to take responsibility for his record and his campaign and tell the people of New York what he would do as Senator."

Duffy says the Clinton camp has "obviously been culling [Lazio's] voting record, and they found things that they don't like." But she's not certain they'll be able to use Lazio's record against him effectively. She predicts that for every unacceptably conservative position dredged up by Clinton, Lazio will point to two that show he's moderate.

"One thing making this easier for him and tough on her," Duffy says, "is people are willing to sit and wait for him Â… and polling has been consistent in showing a lot of Lazio's vote is the vote against Hillary Clinton."

The two in fact are running dead even in statewide polls; and in the Quinnipiac College poll, half of Lazio's support is the anti-Hillary vote.

"Better you be unknown than widely disliked," says New York Republican strategist Kieran Mahoney, who ran successful statewide campaigns for New York Gov. George Pataki and former U.S. Sen. Al D'Amato. All the same, Lazio, he says, "has to fill in the blanks about who he is before they're filled in for him."

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