What's Wrong With Rick?

Rick Lazio can't get a break.

The New York City hotel ballroom where a planned multimillion dollar fund-raiser was held Tuesday night for the Republican U.S. Senate candidate was only a quarter full.

The lame event planning was the latest ouch! for a campaign that's been stubbing its toe regularly since the former Long Island Little Leaguer threw his first pitch at celebrity slugger Hillary Clinton in mid-May.

Since The Fat Lip, incurred when Lazio fell on his face during a Memorial Day weekend parade, these missteps have dogged his campaign:

  • The congressman missed a House vote on an energy bill with direct consequences for New York.
  • Lazio also missed New York City's Gay Pride Parade last weekend - de rigeur for most local pols - to keep a date with upstate dairy farmers.
  • Over the weekend, a Securities And Exchange Commission investigation of some 1997 Lazio investments came to light.
  • On Monday, he angered Native Americans by misspeaking, and on Tuesday, environmentalists - who complained Lazio drove a gas guzzler to an energy event, and left the engine running while he spoke.
None of these goofs have been fatal, but taken together...

"He looks like a kid! Senators don't look like kids," says Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "The real issue is by doing these things he keeps proving he doesn't have the gravitas to be United States Senator from New York. It is not the single misstep that is problematic, it is the combination."

But one Republican source says the problem isn't out on the campaign trail; it's back at headquarters. "Lazio's learning curve has been complicated by the fact that his camp is being torn in three or four factions that are trying to take control of it. He needs one captain."

In addition to strategist Mike Murphy, of the defunct John McCain presidential campaign, Lazio enjoys the input of the New York governor's office, his own congressional office and his brother-in-law. Bill Dal Col, who ran Steve Forbes's campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, came on a couple weeks ago and promised to impose some "discipline" on the operation.

"If we're trying to build the car as we drive down the freeway, maybe a mirror will fall off now and then," says Lazio communications director Dan McLagan, who acknowledges that Lazio is still "staffing up."

Lazio has every incentive to get his own house in order, as it's suddenly under attack.

Last week, Clinton rolled out a handful of negative television ads that criticize Lazio's legislative record. The ads, in which Clinton is neither seen nor heard, scold Lazio for the missed vote and identify him with the Republican leadership in Congress. In two ads airing in New York City, the Big Apple's plainspoken former mayor Ed Koch says Lazio's "wrong on too many issues." New York Democrats, meanwhile, have unveiled an ad which starts running upstate on Thursday. The comercial repeats Clinton's charge that Lazio voted against the Patients Bill of Rights.

"What Lazio is facing right now is the Clinton attack machine in high gear - the private detectives ...and the brutal opposition research team the Clintons are famous for," says Republican Rick Wilson, a former Giuliani strategist.

Lazio's response to the barrage of negative ads has been muted. So far.

In a 30-second response to the Clinton blitz, Lazio himself promises a positive campaign, and calls Clinton's ads "simply untrue," arguing it's "easier for Mrs. Clinton to attack me than to name a single thing she has ever done for New York."

Sheinkopf and Wilson think Clinton may pay a price for going negative first.

Not only can the ads, in Wilson's view, "reinforce the negatives [voters] already think about Clinton," but they could provoke the other side, which until now has expended more energy introducing Lazio to voters beyond his congressional district.

"We will fight back and correct the record every time they issue forth a distortion," promises McLagan, who says Lazio's message is a "positive, issue-oriented campaign focusing on his record" and vision.

Whether Lazio can get his act together and mount an effective counterattack remains to be seen. It should be noted that the youthful congressman isn't the only candidate in the race who's suffered a few setbacks. Ms. Yankees Cap went through an embarrassing Three Stooges period before her campaign finally came together. The Lazio camp appears to expect a similar rejuvenation.

"Under Bill Dal Col's day-to-day direction," says McLagan, the Lazio campaign is "hitting stride."

At least they're not hitting the pavement.