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Rep. Rick Lazio isn't Rudy _ and that's not good for Hillary

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Mayor Rudy Giuliani scowls. Rep. Rick Lazio smiles.

Giuliani is a notorious loner. Lazio works collegially with Democrats. Giuliani has antagonized minorities and the poor. Lazio has worked to improve public housing and make life safer in the projects.

Lazio, the Republican congressman from New York's 2nd District, on Long Island, presents an entirely new problem for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she runs for the Senate.

He has none of Giuliani's baggage and very little of his own. A race that once seemed entirely negative _ the anti-Clinton voters versus the anti-Giuliani voters _ now leaves Clinton with most of the negative burden.

Upstate, for example, Clinton's "carpetbagger" status was offset by Giuliani's association with New York City. Lazio has no such handicap. Clinton is now the sole outsider.

In the Senate, the first lady would be a novice legislator who needs to learn both the problems of the state and how to solve them through national legislation. Giuliani was not much better off.

Lazio, however, has nearly eight years of experience in Washington, including chairmanship of the subcommittee on housing and community opportunity. One of his key achievements stemmed from a compromise with Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

As soon as Giuliani withdrew from the race Friday, Democratic operatives were pointing to Lazio's support for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

It is true that Lazio has been a reliable Republican team player in the House's internal politics and voted for impeachment of President Clinton. But he also has broken with the leadership over gun control, abortion and conservation. His voting record, as calculated by the magazine National Journal, splits almost exactly down the middle between liberal and conservative positions.

Lazio certainly won't inherit Giuliani's claim to fame as the tough mayor who made New York City safe. Even New York liberals who might normally be considered reliable supporters of Clinton were tempted to vote for Giuliani as a reward for making the streets safer.

But that weakness may be offset by lack of hostility to Lazio among city voters, who have been just waiting to cast a vote against Giuliani. One of Clinton's hopes for victory has been high turnout, motivated by anti-Giuliani fervor in black and Hispanic communities.

"Hillary will keep on doing what she's been doing," one of her closest advisers says. "She gets up in the morning and visits people and talks about schools and health care. None of that will change."

But Clinton has been handicapped by a ceiling in her support. She has never gotten above 50 percent in polls, and her hope has been that Giuliani would have an even lower ceiling.

Lazio is a relative unknown in the state. He may not have much support yet, but he also does not suffer from that ceiling. He will benefit from the national hate-Hillary crusade that poured millions into Giuliani's campaign.

Giuliani's biggest drawback _ and Hillary's biggest asset _ was Giuliani. Whatever other problems Lazio may have, he doesn't have that one.

Lars-Erik Nelson is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

New York Daily News