Lazio Becomes Stealth Republican

Better Rick Lazio thumbs up
Unlike George W. Bush, New York's version of a "compassionate conservative" won't give a prime time speech during the convention.

In part, that's because convention organizers wanted to focus attention on everyday people instead of the political heavyweights that normally grace the podium.

According to convention Press Secretary Tim Fitzpatrick, "In talking with members of Congress, we agreed that the messengers are more important than the message."

But in Lazio's case there's more than meets the eye. He was given the chance to deliver a speech at the convention, but turned it down.

It seems the congressman, who must guard from being labeled by Hillary Clinton as a right-winger, is trying to keep a low profile. He showed up at the convention center on Tuesday to hold a press conference, but waffled as he tried to explain why he turned down the opportunity to speak.

"I think I got an invitation to speak the first day," he said. "But my job is to get back to New York. That's where the votes are."

Lazio did not miss an opportunity to take a jab at his Senate rival, saying "I am not running for national office here. I am running for Senate from New York," referring to Mrs. Clinton's prominent speaking role at the upcoming Democratic convention and the suspicion that, if elected, she would use the Senate as a springboard for higher office.

Lazio - telegenic, youthful, and ethnic (Italian Roman-Catholic) - is up in the polls, but certainly could have benefitted from some national media exposure to put an end to the "Rick who?" syndrome.

So why duck the spotlight? Lazio is explicitly trying to distance himself from the GOP on issues sensitive to New York state voters, especially on abortion.

At a Tuesday press conference, Lazio firmly denied supporting the GOP platform on the issue of abortion. "I don't support the anti-abortion plank. I think the platform, frankly, has become obsolete," he said.

"Governor Bush will be running on the ideas that he believes in," Lazio continued, implying that the GOP presidential nominee is more tolerant vis-à-vis abortion rights than the party platform. "That's what's important. I'll be running on my record of eight years in Congress."

Lazio has been eager to extend this parallel between himself and George W. Bush, which comes in handy as Lazio tries to counter criticism that he is closely allied with the conservative right.

But his stealthy appearance at the GOP convention smacks of an attempt to have his cake and eat it too - to ride the crest of Gov. Bush's wave without being sucked under by the conservative undertow.