N.Y. soft money ban lifts Lazio's election prospects

Candidates' pledge begins tomorrow. Critics say it won't outlast a drop in polls.

Money counts - at no time more so than in the last few weeks of a political campaign.

But in New York, the fight to be perceived as the "good government candidate" actually aced the almighty dollar over the weekend when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio agreed to swear off so-called soft money in the nation's second-most-prominent political race.

Analysts are split on what impact it will have on the race. Some contend that it puts Mrs. Clinton clearly on the defensive, since Representative Lazio has about a $3 million hard edge money lead over her. She'll have to retool her fundraising campaign, and do it fast.

But others argue the pledge will have no effect at all. Even though most Americans favor such campaign-finance initiatives as a way to get influence peddling out of the nation's political process, it rarely affects the way they vote.

"There is no indication from any public opinion poll ever that the public votes on the basis of campaign finance," says Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Barnard College in New York. "If they did, we would have had the reforms long ago."

Still, reform advocates call the weekend pledge that goes into effect tomorrow a historic breakthrough that could help usher in an new era of political change. From their perspective, campaign-finance overhaul is getting its first real national road test in one of the toughest and most heated political environments.

But that's if it works. And many naysayers doubt it will. The agreement is voluntary and it depends on voluntary compliance from an assortment of political and issue-oriented groups. Critics contend it won't last beyond the first precipitous dip in the polls for either candidate.

"You already have Bill Powers from the state Republican Party saying he's not going to abide by it. I doubt the Conservative Party will, and on the flip side John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO isn't going to," says pollster John Zogby. "Basically, it will make as much difference as the Briand de Kellogg Peace pact of 1928 that outlawed war - the stakes are too high, and they've got the money, so they're going to find a way to spend it."

Dozens of issue groups will be grappling this week with how to handle the requests from the respective candidates for the voluntary ban. For many, from the National Abortion Right Action League to the United Federation of Teachers to the Right to Life Committee, elections are not only times to stump for candidates, but also time to get out their own message and organize.

"On the one hand, they say they have First Amendment rights of their own and a message they need to get out," says Helen Desfosses, a political scientist at SUNY Albany. "But on the other hand, if some of [Clinton's] supporters are seen as the ones that circumvent this ban, I don't think that's going to play well, either. It's a very messy and complex environment."

Still, some analysts believe it will help in the "perceptions war" in the tight and fluid race.

Lazio was clearly on the defensive after slipping in the polls and facing questions about his "gravitas" and preparedness for the

Senate after the debate in Buffalo. But in the last week, he's been on the offensive and regained some ground.

Not only has he forced Mrs. Clinton to accept a ban, which she originally proposed but ultimately shied away from, he also attacked her use of presidential perks.

After Lazio pressured the White House for weeks, spokesman Joe Lockhart admitted that, of the 404 overnight guests of the Clintons' in the last year, 100 were contributors to her campaign who gave a total of $624,000.

Mr. Lockhart contended they were friends of the family, supporters and public officials to whom the Clintons wanted to "extend the opportunity to stay with them in their home." Still, it was immediately dubbed "sleepovergate" and critics were amazed that the White House had not learned from the 1995 Lincoln Bedroom scandal.

Lazio has been using both issues to pound away at Clinton's credibility and ethics.

But several analysts believe that Lazio's beating the wrong drum in the bully pulpit by trying to attack Clinton's character and taking a "holier than thou" stance.

"I don't see where he scores the good government points for going after her soft money, when he's been using vicious character assassination in his national direct-mail campaign," says Ms. Fuchs. "From a functional equivalence, what's the difference between doing that kind of campaign and a soft-money campaign? They just get around using different loopholes."

While it's still too early to tell if this particular soft-money pledge will hold for the next few weeks, let alone the next few days, many analysts believe it still could have a long-term effect on the whole campaign-finance overhaul debate. "A lot of the independent groups are going to come out of this election with a bigger stake than they've ever had in campaign-finance reform," says Ms. Desfosses. "They're going to realize that they have to be involved in straightening this thicket out, so they won't be inhibited in the future."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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