WASHINGTON — In sizing up the Giuliani-Clinton Senate race last November, I cited the view of that highly regarded New York-based pollster, John Zogby. "A Democratic candidate running a statewide race ordinarily needs 70 to 75 percent of the Jewish vote to win," said Mr. Zogby in a phone interview. "And," Zogby added, "my findings show that Jewish voters in New York would now give Clinton only 52 percent of their vote."
So with Congressman Rick Lazio replacing Giuliani on the ticket, I again called Zogby. "How would Hillary Clinton fare with Jewish voters in this new matchup?" I asked.
Zogby said his polling showed that Clinton would receive 49 percent of the Jewish vote and Lazio would pick up 22 percent. "The remainder are undecided," he said.
So it would seem that Mrs. Clinton would have to win over almost all of these "undecideds" if she is to pull in the Jewish vote usually needed for a Democrat to win in a statewide election. "One of four Jewish voters are undecided about her," Zogby points out. "That's a bad sign for Hillary."
Zogby told me that Giuliani was "running neck and neck" with Clinton with the Jewish vote when he dropped out of the race.
Back in November, I started my column with this: "It is exceedingly dangerous to predict the outcome of a political contest, particularly if you are letting your forecast be determined by the way one segment of the electorate seems to be going. That group could change its views. Other factors may come into play. And on and on."
It must be clearly understood that I hold to that same cautious outlook today as I look at that fascinating Senate race where this relatively unknown congressman (outside his Long Island congressional district) has, with only a few days of intense politicking around the state, turned the contest into a virtual dead heat.
When Lazio first replaced the departing Giuliani, the Zogby poll showed him with 32 percent support and Mrs. Clinton at 45.7 percent backing. That reading was on May 20. But by May 25, Lazio's vigorous campaigning had, according to Zogby, raised his support to 43 percent against a static Clinton showing of 45.8 percent.
Zogby had predicted that Lazio would "close the gap with Hillary within 72 hours" when the congressman entered the race.
So once again Zogby the pollster is being hailed for "calling it right." In 1996 he gained much acclaim for becoming the pollster who came the closest to forecasting the outcome of that year's presidential race.
Zogby told me Mrs. Clinton's problem with Jewish voters is "significant." But he certainly isn't predicting she is going to lose. Nor do I.
With Giuliani dropping out, Hillary Clinton has become the favorite. She's been campaigning in New York State so long now that her "outsider" image has faded to a large extent - although Lazio is working hard to persuade the voters to view her as an undeserving carpetbagger.
Mrs. Clinton is, of course, a nationally known celebrity. And she is being helped by the best of the Democratic and Clinton political strategists (including the President himself) and, most importantly, by the big contributions that usually go only to presidential candidates.
Zogby points out Mrs. Clinton's tendency to polarize the voters. This, he says, is reflected in her inability, thus far, to rise above 50 percent in the polls. Why is he not calling the Clinton-Lazio contest? He says, "It is much too early."
Zogby is right in not being too bullish on the personable Rick Lazio.
The young congressman has shown that he can campaign hard.
But he has yet to exhibit the depth of thinking that many voters may want in the senator who will replace the intellectual Pat Moynihan.
Yet it seems to me that Mrs. Clinton should worry about that Jewish vote. She now needs to get into New York City and campaign hard there as well as upstate.
That Jewish vote could, indeed, turn out to be Hillary Clinton's Achilles' heel.
Despite her star power, it's too soon to tell if Hillary Clinton has the Senate race in the bag.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society