Republicans should learn from Lazio

By Nicholas Sanchez
web posted September 18, 2000

My, my, my. If there is anyone out there that doesn't believe that politics is a contact sport, then they should watch a replay of the Lazio-Clinton Senate debate. Congressman Rick Lazio proved that he could play tough and provided a great example for his Republican colleagues. Here are a few things that they could learn from his performance.

Rick Lazio and Hillary ClintonThe first thing was "don't be afraid to be tough on your opponent." It is no exaggeration to say that Lazio came to the debate prepared to do battle. Throughout the debate he would immediately respond to charges put forth by the first lady and refute them. By my count, Mrs. Clinton tried five times - five! - to tie Mr. Lazio to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is anathema to most people in the country. Each time she was met with a sharp rebuke: "Mr. Gingrich isn't in this race, I'm in this race" was one such reply from Lazio.

Lazio's strategy of coming out so strongly against Hillary (a woman) is one that most professional politicians would congenitally shy away from. Pundits never tire of telling us that because she "stood by her man" and was lied to by the president, Mrs. Clinton elicits a lot of sympathy - especially from middle-class female voters. Lazio eschewed this silly notion, realizing that the other side plays for keeps and so he had better do the same.

The second great lesson from the debate was "don't be afraid to draw distinctions between you and your opponent". Lazio is a New Yorker; Hillary isn't. Many times over Lazio uttered phrases that went along the lines of "as a New Yorker" or "as any real New Yorker would know" to reinforce the notion that Hillary is an interloper into New York politics. Moreover, Lazio has a voting record and Hillary doesn't. Lazio forcefully reminded his audience of this many times, and did not shy away from taking her to task for the time she did attempt to maneuver legislation through Congress: the universal health care plan debacle. And when Hillary used the Yiddish expression "chutzpah" - in reference to Lazio's relationship with the conservative GOP Congressional leadership - he threw the phrase back at her.

New Yorkers are a different breed of people. They are a distinctive bunch, quite different than someone from Colorado or Ohio. Former New Yorkers - especially from the urban areas - never quite shed their accent or outlook on life. By being who he is, perhaps to the point of becoming a caricature of himself, Lazio has established his hometown bona fides and forced Hillary to become an overnight hometown girl. Which she, most assuredly, is not.

And the third great lesson was that political candidates should go hunting where the ducks are. Both candidates were questioned whether or not they supported a current teachers' strike going on in Buffalo, a strike that is illegal under New York's Taylor Law. Hillary gave a weak answer, stammering a bit . . . giving mild support to the teachers on strike (read: criminals) yet coming out in favor of "the children". Lazio, meanwhile, came out against the illegal strike - which is a move rarely employed by Republicans. Namely, not sucking up to groups (in this case teachers' unions) that are going to come out against you no matter what you do.

Because of his tour de force performance, I think any objective commentator would have to say that Rick Lazio clearly beat Hillary Clinton in this first debate. And what a turnaround for Lazio. Prior to this debate, it seemed as if Hillary was inching her way to a safe victory in the Fall. Now that doesn't seem so clear.

Lazio's decision to seriously confront Hillary was the right one. If he continues along this path, he may transform himself from an obscure Congressman to the man who succeeded Patrick Moynihan.

Nicholas Sanchez is host of the Free Congress radio program "New Nation."

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