Battleground in N.Y. race moves upstate

Lazio has only slim advantage in GOP stronghold, helping Clinton lead overall.

In the last critical week of the historic New York Senate race, the battleground has shifted to the staunchly Republican region upstate, with its rumpled hills and still-struggling manufacturing towns.

The change of focus from the predominantly Democratic metropolis and its politically-mixed suburbs is a sign that Republican Rep. Rick Lazio is struggling.

He's hoping to tip the balance in the hotly contested race. But right now, it's tilted in the First Lady's favor statewide.

There's no doubt Hillary Rodham Clinton still trails her Republican rival in the upstate region - but only by a handful of points. That's a big reason, analysts say, for Mrs. Clinton's steady overall lead in the polls since September.

It's also what prompted Mr. Lazio's recent two-week dash from Syracuse to Buffalo to Rochester and back, as he races to solidify what should be his strongest base.

"Hillary's worked her tail off upstate and she's doing better than a Democrat ought to," says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn. "She got in early, she did her homework, and she's been there. That's made a difference."

From behind the dusky pine counter at Rascals restaurant in Cortland, N.Y., Jennifer Robbins explains why Clinton - the state's most famous immigrant - is closing in on the home-grown Lazio in this Republican stronghold.

Over the past decade, Ms. Robbins says, she's watched her once-booming business ebb to "just getting by," even though she's working just as hard.

That's a common experience upstate. Large employers like Smith Corona have fled the region in search of lower taxes, cheaper utilities, and reduced labor costs, leaving struggling cities, towns, and restaurants like Rascals in their wake. All the while, "downstate" along with the rest of the country, has boomed.

It's left a sour taste for many like Robbins, who'd now rather give a newcomer a chance.

"She's more open-minded and aware of what's going on up here," says Robbins. "I think that because she's not a New Yorker, she's going to work harder at bringing some business back to upstate."

That sentiment might be unconventional, but it's clear Lazio's support upstate is not what it needs to be. Until this final push, many Republican officials quietly worried he was taking upstate for granted.

That's what Lazio's now trying hard to remedy. He even stopped by Rascals a few weeks ago for dinner. But it was too late to win Robbins over.

"Well, he's downstate," she says shrugging. "Yeah, it's great his kids go to public schools, but they go to school downstate. I just think she's going to be able to be more fair all the way around."

In 1998, similar frustrations cost Republican Sen. Alphonse D'Amato his seat, surprising pundits. While Senator D'Amato carried upstate, it was only by a handful of points, not the double digits needed to overcome Democrat Charles Schumer's advantage downstate.

"It may be that upstate is not the monolithic Republican stronghold that it used to be," says pollster Lee Miringoff. "And certainly during the first debate, Lazio didn't seem to be in touch with upstate sentiments when he talked about the economy turning the corner."

Shifting loyalties

Aware of those criticisms, Lazio worked to fire up a crowd of 1,300 Republican women in Syracuse last week by attacking Clinton's record, or lack of one, in New York.

"Name me three things [she's] done for New York," he said, pacing around a platform in the center of the brightly lit exhibit hall as the crowd cheered between bites of quiche and croissant.

He spent the next hour listing his past accomplishments and future promises. The litany was regularly punctuated by applause, but it was usually reserved for Lazio's not-so-subtle criticisms of his opponent - like saying that "character still counts in public service."

And that presents another upstate challenge for the boyish congressmen from downstate. Many supporters like Mary Lee Kokosa of Skineatelis say they still don't know that much about him. After a pause, she says she supports Lazio because she's a Republican and he espouses more conservative ideas. But "I'm definitely opposed to Hillary Clinton," she adds.

Contrasting styles

Later that day, Clinton - who finally seems to have mastered the transition from formal first lady to good-natured, podium-thumping candidate - also appeared in Syracuse, standing in front of a chart of the Census Bureau's new estimates of the population exodus from upstate.

She used it to highlight her plan to improve upstate's economy - which includes, among other things, targeted tax credits, and new grant and loan programs - and to taunt her opponent for his lack of one.

While Lazio has not outlined a specific plan for upstate, he says his overall proposals for income tax cuts will help the region's struggling economy far more than Clinton's proposals.

As he looked out over the crowd of pleased supporters in Syracuse - the biggest he'd greeted yet upstate - he expressed confidence that over the next two critical weeks, he'll win back his native Republican advantage.

"People have always had a tendency to underestimate me," he says, grinning confidently.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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