Rep. Rick Lazio of Long Island came roaring into the race for senator from New York on Saturday, attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton as a "far-left, extremist" candidate who has "no real rationale for serving here other than as a steppingstone to some other position."
"I think her ambition is the issue," Lazio declared in an interview, as he formally announced his candidacy in a race that has been upended by the decision of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to step aside for health reasons.
Lazio's remarks came as Republican leaders in New York and Washington lined up behind the candidacy of the Suffolk County Republican, who had suspended his campaign last year in deference to party leaders who wanted Giuliani as their candidate.
The official announcement, which came at West Islip High School less than 24 hours after Giuliani dropped out, launched the 42-year-old, four-term congressman into the national spotlight. He was scheduled to appear on the five major TV news shows today.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew said Saturday that Giuliani's departure and replacement by Lazio improved Clinton's chances of winning.
"Lazio is more conservative _ the lines (between Lazio and Clinton) are much clearer. He'll be an easier candidate to beat," Andrew said.
Lazio acknowledged facing an uphill battle against the first lady _ one poll showed her with a huge lead over Lazio. But he sounded an optimistic note to supporters who sported T-shirts reading, "Lazio _ Made in New York."
The tenor of Lazio's comments _ he repeatedly criticized Clinton's credentials and ideology _ suggested that the campaign, with the change in candidate, was going to be harsh and fast-paced.
Clinton's advisers have begun to attack Lazio as extreme and conservative, noting he had supported many of the initiatives of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as they tried to discredit his candidacy before he had a chance to find his groundings.
Clinton's press secretary, Howard Wolfson, responded to Lazio's comments Saturday morning by saying: "It sounds like the same old negative attack politics."
Lazio described his Democratic opponent as "far left," adding: "She's part of the discredited philosophy that helped lead New York to ruin during the Cuomo years. I think we've turned the corner and we don't want to go back to those failed days."
In the interview, Lazio jumped at almost every opportunity to criticize Clinton. He responded vigorously when asked if he would make an issue out of the fact that Clinton did not live in New York before this year, a subject Giuliani frequently raised.
"I'm the real thing," he said. "I don't have to try to be someone else. I was born here. I went to school here. I fished in these waters. I clammed in its bays. I graduated from our schools. My children were born in New York state. I've lived here my whole life. There will be no question of my commitment to this state."
By contrast, he said, Clinton was hurt both by the fact that she had never lived in the state where she wants to serve, and because of the cloistered life she lived as a first lady.
"You don't know New York if you have bodyguards around you all the time," he said. "You've got to know what it's like to ride the subways, to drive your own car, to buy your own gas, to buy groceries here."
"I think people can see through who Hillary Clinton is, and they will have a chance to know Rick Lazio as the real deal," he said.
Clinton issued a statement welcoming Lazio to the race. "This will be a race of clear contrasts," she said.
Presidential money race
WASHINGTON _ George W. Bush raised three times more money than Al Gore last month, but the vice president made up the difference with taxpayer funds and continued to have more money in the bank than his GOP opponent.
Bush reported raising $3.8-million last month, bringing his record-setting total to more than $84-million, while Gore took in $1.1-million and received $2.5-million in federal funds, according to campaign finance reports released Saturday. The vice president has raised $3-million, which does not include federal money.
Through April 30, Gore had $5.7-million in the bank, plus an expected $4.5-million in federal funds, for a total of $10.2-million. Bush had $6-million cash on hand.
Gore, however, is limited to spending $40.5-million on his campaign, plus legal and accounting costs, because he is accepting federal funds. Bush is not taking the federal money, and therefore can spend as much as he can raise.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.