In just a few tumultuous days, the stage for a titanic battle for New York's Senate seat - one of the only hot tickets in a rather drab political season - has been completely reset. With new characters and a new set of political dynamics, come untold questions about how the plot will play out.
The only thing it proves, say the pundits, is that there's nothing predictable about politics.
But Rudolph Giuliani's exit from the race may pose a different set of challenges for the Democratic contender.
"The race suddenly becomes about Hillary [Rodham] Clinton," says Republican analyst Jay Severin. "Deprived of someone else's baggage, she's now got to talk about genuine particulars."
Her new opponent is expected to be Rick Lazio, a Long Island congressman who many say lacks the gritty audacity of New York's mayor.
Mrs. Clinton, for her part, says the race will now be about issues, and not personalities. "This will be a race of clear contrasts, because we've got very different stands on education, healthcare, the future of the economy, and issues concerning children and the elderly," she says.
At the same time, Democratic operatives were cheerfully discussing the congressman's "Gingrich-like" voting record, a reference to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
New actor takes the stage
But Mr. Lazio, who characterizes himself as a moderate Republican, signaled he was ready for the fight. At his old high school gym in Islip, N.Y., a sure symbol of his local roots, Lazio assailed Clinton as overly ambitious and too "far left."
"She is no more a New Democrat than she is a New Yorker," he told a crowd of cheering supporters who had been waiting for this announcement since last summer, when Lazio bowed out of the race in deference to Mayor Giuliani's greater name recognition and perceived win-ability.
Lazio signaled he'd make Clinton's "ambition" a top issue in the new battle. And while the race has lost much of its operatic drama with the departure of the once larger-than-life mayor, it is likely to retain the national stage. It is, after all, the first time a first lady has run for office, and then there is the national emotion, good and bad, connected with anyone with the name Clinton.
But the unpredictable nature of the new race is also expected to keep the audience's attention. People will be watching to see if the boyish-looking, four-term congressman has the mettle to take on Clinton, who's spent the past year visiting every county in the state. Many pundits say that although Lazio's fairly unknown, he starts with a good base.
"He gets the anti-Hillary vote - an immediate 30 to 35 percent," says New York pollster Lee Miringoff.
And she loses the anti-Giuliani vote, which was expected to be strong, particularly in minority communities.
"It just means she's going to have to work twice as hard," says former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
Lazio also has far fewer "negatives" than Clinton does. People just don't know him yet. If he's skillful, he can paint a positive picture as he completes his two-day tour around the state.
But he's also untested on a statewide stage. Despite what was considered a strong entrance over the weekend, he could still stumble as badly as Clinton did during her first few months. She had the luxury of time to recover her balance. That's something Lazio's late entrance deprives him of - giving the race even more of an edge of the unpredictable.
But Mr. Koch, a veteran of New York's charged political stage, says the problem with prophesy goes beyond politics. "The unpredictability of politics? How 'bout the unpredictability of life?"
Indeed, it was life that seemed to smack the usually feisty, self-assured Giuliani off his stride and out of the race. First came revelations that doctors had diagnosed him with cancer. Then came tabloid hints about his "very good friend," which were followed by the seeming denouement: Much to the dismay of his wife and the Christian right, the mayor used a public confessional to announce he'd been unfaithful and was leaving his family. He said he was simply trying to be "honest" in all aspects of his life.
Exit the mayor
What followed was a week of very public indecision about these difficult personal problems.
After a nationally broadcast town meeting Thursday, the mayor seemed buoyant, thriving in the applause of the 92nd Street Y, the usually liberal bastion that was packed with supporters.
But Friday, an emotional, uncertain, and seemingly repentant man stepped up to the podium in City Hall and withdrew from the race, saying he wanted to be a better mayor and a better man.
"Am I closer to God?" he said in response to a reporter's question. "Let's hope God's a lot closer to me!" He then smiled and exited the stage.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society