Lazio Plays Hardball on Soft-Money Issue

ROBERT HARDT Jr., GREGG BIRNBAUM and MAGGIE HABERMAN - New York Post - September 14, 2000

BUFFALO - Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio last night faced off in a heated debate touching on Sexgate, who has the most "chutzpah" and - most dramatically - soft-money advertising.

A highly charged moment in the first showdown between the Senate rivals came when Lazio walked over to Clinton and handed her his "Freedom From Soft Money Pact" - a pledge to call on all outside groups to stop running ads on his behalf if the first lady would do the same.

"Mrs. Clinton, if you agree to do this, you'll be making a statement about character and trust to the rest of the country," Lazio said. "Why don't you show some leadership?"

Clinton pointed out that she made an identical proposal to Lazio this spring and that he backed away from it.

"That was a wonderful performance and you did it very well," Clinton said about Lazio's stroll to her podium.

"If you will get signed agreements from all your friends who say they're raising $32 million, and will not be running so-called independent ads, will not be doing push-polling, will not be doing mass mailings that are filled with outrageous personal attacks, I think we could have an agreement," Clinton said.

"I'd like to see those signed letters from all those different groups that you have counted on to flood the state."

Lazio had previously mailed the pledge to the Clinton camp, and both sides have exchanged a flurry of open letters and challenges to each other in an attempt to gain the soft-money high ground.

Soft-money donations are unregulated contributions to political parties or private organizations that can then be used to buy ads on the candidate's behalf.

The debate also featured Clinton giving one of her most detailed responses, to a question by NBC moderator Tim Russert about her claims that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" had targeted her husband during the opening weeks of the Sexgate scandal.

"I didn't mislead anyone. I didn't know the truth," Clinton said.

"That was a very painful time for me, for my family, and for our country.

Lazio responded: "Blaming others every time you have responsibility, unfortunately, that's become a pattern I think for my opponent."

In response to an audience question, Clinton also cited new questions about imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, saying there were "due-process issues concerning the way he was sentenced ."

Both candidates came out of the box swinging early in the debate, when Clinton accused her GOP rival of having chutzpah - the Yiddish word for a lot of nerve.

"Listening to the congressman's response reminds me of a word I've heard a lot about this year - chutzpah," the Democratic candidate said after Lazio answered a health-care question.

Clinton said Lazio had often voted with former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to cut federal spending, including Medicare.

Lazio responded later: "I have to go back to Mrs. Clinton's last remark because it has to redefine the word chutzpah. Mrs. Clinton, you of all people shouldn't try to make guilt by association. Newt Gingrich isn't running in this race. I'm running in this race. Let's talk about my issues."

The event also had its pop-culture moment when each candidate was asked whom they would call as their emergency lifeline if they were playing the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

"You, Tim," Clinton told Russert to laughter.

"My wife," Lazio quickly responded.

About 250 people were in the audience for the event, which was broadcast statewide and later nationally on MSNBC.

The media crush was unprecedented for a debate over a Senate seat, with reporters from around the world covering the fight.

The showdown was the first of three scheduled debates between the candidates. The next is slated for Oct. 8 on WCBS/Channel 2.

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