NOVEMBER 3—The battle between Rick Lazio and Hillary Rodham Clinton may be won or lost not in New York but in Michigan.
Lazio’s chief strategist, Mike Murphy, has spent much of the past month bailing out old friend and homeboy Spencer Abraham, a Michigan Republican who was Dan Quayle’s chief aide, in another tight Senate race.
And in one of the crueler twists, Murphy is using John McCain to full advantage in Michigan, not New York. The Arizona Republican, whose insurgent campaign against George W. Bush in the primaries was orchestrated by Murphy, is marching for G-Dub through Michigan, a key swing state in the presidential race, and is lending a hand as well to Abraham.
Which leaves Lazio as the odd man out, even as polls show him gaining on Hillary Clinton. Lazio has had very little help from McCain and questionable help from Murphy, whose gimmicky tactics haven’t exactly created a groundswell of admiration for the lightweight Long Islander.
Although Lazio has paid dearly for Murphy’s help in the most expensive Senate race in the nation’s history, he still hasn’t gotten his chief strategist’s undivided attention.
Both Lazio and Abraham picked Murphy to lead their campaigns, which are the two most important and closely watched Senate races in the country. But records show that, although Lazio is paying Murphy the bigger bucks, Abraham is getting the bigger bang.
Lazio’s campaign paid Murphy’s firm more than $4.5 million in October, all of it in the first 16 days of the month, according to federal campaign finance records. Old pal Abraham’s campaign, by contrast, paid Murphy’s firm “only” $1.2 million in October, all of it in the first 12 days of the month.
Lazio’s campaign has clearly been on the defensive in the past month, in part because of Murphy’s criticized attack-dog strategy in which Lazio strode over to Hillary Rodham Clinton during their first debate and demanded that she sign a “soft-money pledge.”
But when the going got tough for Lazio, Murphy headed for Michigan. After a hiatus from being visible in Abraham’s campaign, Murphy started popping up in late October press accounts there as Abraham’s “chief strategist.”
The Financial Times of London and other newspapers have said that huge infusions of money in the past couple of months, molded into a blitz orchestrated by Murphy, revived Abraham’s moribund campaign against Democrat Debbie Stabenow, not nearly the heavyweight celebrity opponent that Murphy’s boy Lazio has to contend with in New York.
Abraham is a first-term senator who was swept into office (with Murphy’s help) as part of the Gingrich mob in 1994. Observers, even Republicans, criticized both Abraham’s performance as lackluster and deemed him the most vulnerable GOP senator in this year’s election. Given up for dead, he’s now considering to be leading Stabenow.
It’s New York that’s been given up for dead by the national GOP.
And Murphy, despite his work for McCain, has always been loyal to the party. According to a vivid profile of the consultant by Franklin Foer in the latest issue of The New Republic, Murphy learned his trade under the late Terry Dolan in the days of the smarmy National Conservative Political Action Committee, the GOP fundraising apparatus that specialized in harsh attacks against Democrats.
Murphy later worked with friend Abraham for the national GOP and helped John Engler capture the governor’s mansion in Michigan.
After the Gingrich revolt brought a number of young conservatives into Congress, Murphy revealed his own ideological rigidity when he told Harper’s magazine in early 1995, “We were elected to make fundamental radical changes in the size of the federal government. That’s the idea we campaigned on, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
In a tough battle against a celebrity in a moderate New York where someone like Newt Gingrich could never win even a statewide race, Lazio might have picked not only a less ideological consultant but a hungrier one. Earlier this year, according to press accounts, Murphy sold his agency to the huge advertising and public relations conglomerate Interpublic and made millions.
Losing to a celebrity like Hillary Clinton, especially with such a lightweight as Lazio, won’t cost Murphy any business.