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Don't Anoint Hillary, Yet

Campaign Roadmap. A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies.

May 21, 2000|Linda A. DiVall | Linda A. DiVall, president of a public-research firm, was a senior advisor to Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign

ALEXANDRIA, VA. — New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Guiliani has exited the stage of the U.S. Senate race, and we will no longer be confronted with the drama of his medical treatment, the state of his marriage and his dates with his girlfriend. Hillary Rodham Clinton is all but elected, and she's planning her presidential campaign against George W. Bush in 2004, right? Not so fast.

While the focus was entirely off Hillary for the last month of the campaign, she only managed to grab a 1% lead over Giuliani in spite of his vulnerabilities. Now, the task for Republicans is strategically simple: Choose a nominee without a divisive, expensive primary struggle, raise the money that person will need and put the focus back on Hillary.

There are two viable candidates who will receive serious scrutiny over the next 10 days before New York Republicans hold their convention. New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who is adamant about not entering this contest, and Rep. Rick Lazio from suburban Suffolk County, who has announced his intention to run.

Pataki is a pro-choice, moderate GOP governor. Why has he been so reluctant to consider the Senate seat despite leading Hillary 46%-41% in the May 10-15 Quinnipiac College poll? Probably because statistical models put his name atop the list of vice-presidential choices for fellow Gov. Bush, his Yale roommate.

If he does the unexpected and runs, Pataki has all the elements of a winning coalition, garnering 79% of the GOP vote, to Hillary's 72% of the Democratic vote, and leading with the critical independent bloc, 50%-34%, a far better performance than Rudy. Pataki pulls 54% of the men's vote and trails among women by only 7%, holding Hillary to 47%. Pataki trails in New York City, as expected, 34%-56%; but he wins upstate 49%-35% and carries a hefty margin in the suburbs, 57%-33%.

In addition, there is the "likability" factor. Rudy wasn't faring too well in this department, with a 36% favorable to 30% unfavorable. Hillary fares even worse, with just 37% favorable to 35% unfavorable. Pataki has a 49%-18% favorable to unfavorable rating, making him the leader of the bunch.

Don't dismiss Lazio, who announced his candidacy Friday. While he now trails Hillary 31%-50%, he could be a sleeper. Every grandmother in New York is going to want to pinch his cheek and then vote for him. Unlike Hillary, he is devoid of any pretense, hypocrisy or grand-jury investigations. He is a moderate Republican, albeit pro-life, but even here he defies easy classification. He is opposed to partial-birth abortion and voted in favor of family planning. He most certainly would be rewarded the Conservative Party line and will do well in the suburbs, where Hillary has been unable to boost her vote. He has $3.5 million in cash on hand, compared with Hillary's roughly $6 million once her debt is taken into account.

The bottom line is that New York Republicans are not going to be gnashing their teeth about Rudy pulling out because they have two bright, engaging candidates in Lazio and Pataki who will be able to wage a competitive campaign against Hillary. But they had better be prepared for battle. If my friend Bob Beckel is right, whomever emerges as the GOP nominee will find his life unmistakably altered. Some argue that Giuliani self-destructed, others argue the Clintons have a habit of engaging in total destruction of their opposition. Surely, both Pataki and Lazio understand the need to be prepared for such political tactics, to engage Hillary on the issues and place the focus back on Hillary.

So before you buy into the notion that Hillary will be the next senator from the Empire State, just remember: In New York, things can change in a New York minute. *

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