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N.Y. Senate Race Is Close, Nasty

Campaign: First Lady Clinton has lost the solid lead she had weeks ago, polls show. A controversial GOP ad is the latest salvo in a tough fight.


NEW YORK — After months of fierce campaigning, New York's Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio is too close to call, according to a flurry of recent polls. And as the $60-million battle draws to a close, it has turned unusually nasty, even by New York standards.

Lazio, who already had been conducting an aggressive, often negative campaign, turned up the heat this week when he refused to condemn a GOP-sponsored phone blitz linking the first lady--through Muslim campaign contributors--to the terrorists who blew up the destroyer Cole in Yemen.

"There's nothing to apologize for," he said on NBC-TV's "Today" show. Lazio charged that Clinton was suspect for having accepted $50,000 in contributions from the American Muslim Alliance and $1,000 from a Muslim activist who has made statements supporting Hamas, a Palestinian organization that the State Department has labeled a terrorist group.

Clinton, who returned the contributions when the links became public last week, was visibly angered by Lazio's refusal to disavow the GOP phone campaign. She accused the Long Island congressman of making "misleading, inaccurate, offensive, outrageous, despicable attacks," and fired back with TV ads questioning his basic ethics and decency.

In an editorial endorsement of Clinton on Wednesday, the New York Daily News blasted the Republican attack as "over the top," and political observers in both parties said Clinton's tough response shows how much she has grown as a candidate in recent months. Yet she may be slipping in the final days.

Although Clinton enjoyed a modest lead in October surveys, she and Lazio are running neck and neck, based on a new Quinnipiac poll showing her with a 47%-44% margin. Other surveys this week have shown either Clinton or Lazio with slight leads, but most political observers believe the closely watched race will be a squeaker.

They also doubt whether there are many swing voters left to be wooed. After months of relentless campaigning by both sides, pollsters say the fences have been picked clean of undecided voters--making election day turnout crucial.

"The key to this campaign, as with the presidential race, is which side does the better job of getting its people to the polls," said GOP strategist Jay Severin, predicting that Lazio's heavy support from suburban residents will give him a narrow victory. "Suburbanites are the most likely voters to cast ballots in general elections, and if I was Rick, I'd be sleeping much easier on Monday night than Hillary Clinton."

Yet others say Clinton's overwhelming support in Latino and African American communities--plus heavy backing from the state's politically active Jewish community--could translate into a historic turnout. "If Hillary's campaign manages to turn out these voters with any efficiency, I think she'll win comfortably," said Democratic consultant George Arzt.

Pundits offered conflicting views of why the race has tightened in the last week. Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said the election was always close and that the leads Clinton and Lazio enjoyed merely showed the fluctuation of undecided voters. Clinton, he said, is a polarizing candidate who was never likely to achieve a landslide victory.

On the GOP side, pollster Frank Luntz thinks Lazio has finally connected with Republican voters in upstate New York, where Clinton had made surprising inroads. "It was a matter of time before those voters returned to the Republican fold, just as a matter of habit. But even with that movement, it's a race that is just way too close to call."

More than 11 million New Yorkers are registered to vote Tuesday, an all-time high, according to the State Board of Elections, and both campaigns are pouring millions of dollars into get-out-the-vote efforts. They're flooding the airwaves with television ads and bringing in big political guns for last-minute rallies. President Clinton will spend much of this weekend stumping for his wife in New York, and Lazio's campaign promises appearances with Gov. George Pataki, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and other GOP heavyweights.

Although presidential fever seems to have passed New York by--Al Gore has held a steady double-digit lead over George W. Bush, and the two candidates have made few appearances here--the Senate brawl has stoked widespread interest. By the time it's over, Clinton's and Lazio's campaigns will have spent more than $30 million apiece, making this one of the most expensive Senate contests in American political history.

"Things are getting down and dirty in the final days, and a lot of that is because both campaigns have money to burn," Severin said. "What else do you expect from New York?"

Win or lose, Clinton can take comfort from the fact that she ran a historic campaign--the first ever in which a first lady sought elective office. And political experts in both parties praised her for becoming a much more effective candidate than they initially thought possible.

"I'd have to give her an A-minus," Luntz said. "She's been much less shrill, less partisan, and quite frankly she's less vicious than she was as first lady. Her strategists put her on a short leash, and she stayed on that leash. So you have to give her credit for that."

Democrats are more effusive, suggesting that Clinton evolved from a behind-the-scenes policy wonk into a tough and seasoned political candidate in the last 16 months.

"Hillary had it very rough at first," said pollster Joel Benenson, referring to criticisms of her as an overly ambitious carpetbagger. "But she stayed on her feet. If this was a boxing match, I'd say she's taken shots, but it's the 15th round, she's still strong and she's scoring points."

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