Dead Man Losing

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Rick Lazio

Missouri voters elected dead man Mel Carnahan as senator last week, but Rick Lazio lacked even a dead man's charisma and was sent packing back to Long Island.

Hillary was supposed to be the issue in New York's Senate campaign, and that's how Lazio played it from start to finish, leaving most of New York to wonder, after the $100 million was spent: OK, we know about Hillary, but who exactly is this guy running against her?

She was supposed to be the carpetbagger, and that wasn't the only baggage she brought into the state. A solid core of Hillary-haters dogged her with a campaign blitz separate from Lazio's. But she outworked Lazio and had a savvier staff to mold her image. Because much of the campaign was fought by e-mail, press releases, and staged events, she held the edge and kept Lazio on the defensive.


"I've been a doer. I haven't been passive. I've gotten things done."


Hillary relied on insiders to do it. She was the one with the New York-based image-meisters, Bill DeBlasio and Howard Wolfson. And if they couldn't fend off questions, the Secret Service was always there to shoo away reporters.

Lazio was the one who brought in out-of-state radical party hacks to try to win new friends in moderate New York. Campaign strategist Mike Murphy is a Gingrich-loving liberal-hater who wears it on his sleeve, and he imported Ollie North's ex-spokesman, Dan MacLagan, as Lazio's mouthpiece.

Hillary's handlers made her almost seem like a real person. And they were smart enough to refer to her only by her first name so that New Yorkers could pretend to be on a first-name basis with the frosty first lady.

Few of the electorate outside Long Island knew who Lazio was when he replaced Rudy Giuliani in late May. He'd never run a statewide campaign, and he hadn't had a tough race in eight years.

A product of the Long Island GOP machine, which also dominates the state GOP, Lazio decided not to dance with the guys who brung him.

In fact, his outsider, Murphy, had embarrassed New York state and county GOP officials earlier this year by exposing their undemocratic election rules during the state GOP's unseemly struggle to keep John McCain off the primary ballot.

Murphy is heralded as a real wit. And it's no wonder that he's smiling: He banked millions from his political-consulting business this year, despite his record of managing a losing campaign for McCain in the presidential primaries and scripting losers, Lazio and Michigan's Spencer Abraham, in the nation's two most watched Senate races.

Lazio needed the undying support and hard work of every last New York Republican if he hoped to cut into Hillary's celebrity. But when he went upstate, he didn't drag along as many local-yokel Republicans as he could have. On one early swing through the Southern Tier, for example, Lazio, unknown to those voters, trotted out local hero Amo Houghton, the veteran GOP congressman from the area, at only one stop out of four.

At the same time, Lazio was spending $137,000 dollars on a Murphy gimmick: a campaign bus for candidate and reporters patterned after McCain's. McCain, however, likes to bullshit with reporters. Lazio, like his late dad, a die-hard Nixonite, detests the media.

And when Lazio needed good publicity, inexplicably, he refused to grant Newsday an interview midcampaign for a routine profile. Hillary also avoided reporters, but she didn't need them to make herself well-known.

Lazio's campaign paid Murphy's D.C.-area consulting firm more than $4.5 million in October, all of it in the first 16 days of the month. Abraham's campaign paid Murphy's firm $1.2 million during the same period.

Yet during the crucial last month of the campaign, Murphy virtually abandoned Lazio and went back to his own native state to try to salvage old pal Abraham's race against Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Murphy spent election night not in New York, but in Michigan.

Maybe Murphy realized that Lazio never did get up from his Memorial Day pratfall—Little Ricky smashed his face into the pavement while running along a parade route in his very first campaign sprint and sported an unstatesman-like fat lip before Hillary even touched him.

The consultant surely had a hand in what may have been Lazio's worst blunder: his obnoxious march over to Hillary's podium during their September 13 debate to try to get her to sign a pledge against soft money—an issue that nobody cared about but one that Murphy had used on behalf of McCain.

The biggest zero was Lazio's performance in that debate. He looked incapable of making himself project a senatorial air, often finishing his responses with a little smile, his head bobbing slightly like a marionette's.

"I've been a doer," he eagerly offered at one point. "I haven't been passive. I've gotten things done."

Nobody had even accused him of being passive. He sounded like a little kid with a busted lip who wanted to hang out with the adults. They decided not to let him.

 
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