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In a Heated N.Y. Senate Race, a Heated Exchange

Debate: Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio trade angry charges in first face-to-face, nationally televised meeting.

September 14, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In a frequently nasty confrontation, Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio traded angry charges Wednesday during a nationally televised debate. But they also touched on issues in their first face-to-face confrontation in New York's hotly contested Senate race.

The contest has been deadlocked for months, according to numerous public opinion polls, and both candidates had pledged to discuss substantial issues, such as health care, education, the environment and tax reform. Yet the discussion focused more on personal attacks.

Clinton accused her opponent of "chutzpah" for posing as a moderate and avoiding mention of his work as a deputy whip to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Lazio, in turn, castigated the first lady's attacks as "beyond shameless . . . positively Clintonesque. Newt Gingrich isn't running in this race. . . . I'm running."

In a theatrical high point, Lazio, a Long Island Republican, flourished a printed campaign pledge to forgo all so-called "soft money" for the duration of the campaign, urging Clinton to sign it and "stand up for character." She agreed, but demanded first that Lazio get all his "friends" who had been flooding the state with "nasty" letters about her to sign the same pledge, joking that Lazio had put on a "wonderful performance" for the TV cameras.

"In the end, I don't think either of them converted many voters out there," said New York pollster Lee Miringoff, who runs the Marist Poll.

The hourlong debate, at a Buffalo public TV station, got off to an abrasive start, with Lazio belittling Clinton's ill-fated national health care plan, saying it would have cut funding for teaching hospitals and would have been a disaster for New York. "A New Yorker would never have made that proposal," he said.

Clinton conceded that her proposal had failed, but added that "we learned a lot about what we can do," and repeatedly attacked Lazio for voting to cut Medicaid funding.

Tim Russert, the host of NBC's "Meet the Press" and the moderator of Wednesday's debate, rocked both candidates with questions about character and trust. He played a taped excerpt from Clinton's 1998 appearance on NBC's "Today" show, during which she denied that the president had lied about having an affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky or covering it up. Russert asked if she regretted "misleading" the American people.

"Obviously I didn't mislead anyone," Clinton replied. "I didn't know the truth and there is a lot of pain associated with that, and my husband has acknowledged that he did mislead the country as well as his family."

As for Lazio, Russert asked why he had refused to yank a TV ad paid for by political allies that gave the false impression that he had been photographed with New York's outgoing Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan--even after Moynihan asked Lazio to pull the ad. Wasn't this an example of soft-money fakery? Russert asked.

"I reject that," Lazio said. "That ad didn't come out of my campaign."

When they weren't clashing, Clinton and Lazio touted their positions on education, health care, the environment and the economic revival of upstate New York.

In his closing remarks, Lazio said character and trust were at the heart of the Senate race, adding that he has a record of achievement for New Yorkers, while "my opponent has . . . done nothing for New York."

Clinton borrowed a refrain from former New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who like her was called a carpetbagger. "Some may think the most important issue is, who's lived here the longest," she said. "I can't pass that test. But if you want someone who will get up every day and fight for you, I can pass that test."

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