First lady now first in Senate race

Clinton gets a needed bounce as a souvenir from Democratic convention. But will it last?

Polls show Hillary Rodham Clinton may have finally hit her stride in the New York Senate race. And people like Isabel Ciotti may help explain why.

Leaning against the back wall of a crowded basement room in Yonkers with her arms folded and head cocked to the side, the white, middle-aged, community activist has come to hear the first lady speak. "I want to know what she's going to do for New York," says Ms. Ciotti.

After hearing Mrs. Clinton's pitch, Ciotti was impressed, so much so, she's now leaning toward the first lady.

With the last stretch of the historic race now under way, new polls show Clinton is finally beginning to win over some skeptics like Ciotti. Long stuck in the low 40s in the polls again her opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, Clinton has finally pulled ahead by a few points.

Indeed, one poll even gives her a double-digit lead, pushing her to the 50 percent mark.

"Like Al Gore, the Democratic convention has helped her solidify her base," says Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Research, an independent international polling firm in North Carolina.

Clinton has also been helped among Jewish voters by the nomination of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman to the Democratic ticket. And she got a boost thanks to Lazio's decision to keep a low profile at the Republican National Convention.

"The contrast between the little man who wasn't there in Philadelphia, and the front-and-center ... first lady - in the stature competition, she wins that one," says Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute.

While that good news is crucial for the Clinton camp, which has been criticized as beleaguered and stalled, analysts point out that post-convention bounce could be temporary.

And Clinton's negatives also remain high compared with her opponent's. Forty-five percent of respondents in the Zogby International poll released yesterday view her unfavorably, compared with just 30 percent who cast a critical eye at Mr. Lazio.

Outside of the Sunnyside Manor Community room in Yonkers, reporters asked Clinton what she thought about the fact that many people appear just not to like her. Clinton responded with a touch of humor. She laughed and in a girlish tone said, "Oh, that's not true." That's much different from a year ago, when she would have been more likely to freeze up, appearing hostile and offended by the question.

"Initially, she had a very rough time transitioning from 'celebrity Clinton' to 'candidate Clinton,' " says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute in New York. "She's had a smoother run of it, with a few bumps in the road over the last few months, but she still needs to connect better."

Taking a cue from Vice President Gore, Clinton has decided to engage Lazio on the issues, citing inconsistencies in his voting record and charging he has not put New Yorkers first.

"He's voted against the interests of New Yorkers," she says. "He voted to shut the government down, he voted with the Republican leadership and Newt Gingrich time and time again."

Pollsters say she's succeeded in raising questions about Lazio, who still remains a mystery to many New Yorkers. Indeed, she cut his lead in upstate New York by almost half.

But after keeping what appeared to be a low profile, fundraising and dodging in and out of smaller markets, Lazio struck back on the issues last week. He presented a tax-cut plan that he says will bring more money back to New York. At the same time, he lashed out at Clinton, contending that she trusts Washington and its bureaucrats more with New Yorkers' money than she trusts the people themselves.

"Mrs. Clinton and her supporters will paint any real tax cut as a 'risky scheme' because they think it's risky to trust New Yorkers and they're scheming to keep power in Washington," Lazio said.

Last week, Lazio also got a bit of good news. The Securities and Exchange Commission decided not to pursue a questionable stock trade. Still, some analysts believe the appearance of impropriety in the deal has taken a toll on Lazio, in part, because he remains an unknown.

Others also question the impact of his stands on an array of issues from gun control to abortion, contending they are much less clear than Clinton's earlier opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"Lazio is trying to stake out a middle ground on issues that don't have a middle ground," says Esther Fuchs, a political analyst at Barnard College in New York.

"Why is he acceptable to the [anti-abortion] Conservative Party and Rudy wasn't? That immediately will have to give pause to anyone who cares about the abortion issue."

But Lazio is also banking that his record in Congress will stand up well next to Clinton's lack of legislative achievements. And so far, he's succeeded in holding onto his lead in the key suburbs and among independents.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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