The Magazine

Rambunctious Rick

Lazio hits the ground running with a little help from the McCain team

Jun 12, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 37 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Buffalo, N.Y.


IT IS THE LAST WEEK IN MAY and representative Rick Lazio has come upstate to be ordained as his party's candidate in the Senate race against Hillary Clinton. Lazio is slated to speak at the GOP state convention in a few hours, but first he must address several hundred Republican women gathered in a hotel ballroom. Republican women's groups look pretty much the same everywhere, except in Buffalo the women drink Labatt's with lunch.


Lazio spends the first 20 minutes wandering around the room chatting with supporters. Journalists hover about hoping to catch the words, but Lazio's staff don't shoo them away. Lazio greets some of the reporters by name. When it comes time to speak, Lazio walks not to a podium but to a low stage in the middle of the room. He holds the microphone loosely in hand. Behind him is a school-bussized American flag, draped across the wall. Someone has positioned a light to project on the candidate from below. Lazio's silhouette, lone and towering, plays across the flag. It's a beautiful picture.


And a familiar one. Rick Lazio in May in Buffalo looks a lot like John McCain in January in New Hampshire. It may be a coincidence. Or it may have something to do with the people running Lazio's campaign. Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the New York Senate race on May 19, less than two weeks before what would have been his official nomination. This left Rick Lazio little time to assemble a campaign staff. So he bought one whole, or close to it.


Lazio hired, among others, Mike Murphy, McCain's chief strategist and message guru, and Dan McLagan, a former McCain spokesman. He also brought on Keith Nahigian, a long-time GOP advance man who was as responsible as anyone for the distinctive look and feel of McCain rallies during the primaries. Lazio even hired the guys who did the pyrotechnics and confetti at McCain's events. Late last week, Lazio was still negotiating with John Weaver, McCain's old political director, to become campaign manager.


Under the circumstances, Lazio has been both wise and fortunate. Even with more time, he probably couldn't have found a better staff. The campaign is organized. Lazio is already competitive with his opponent in the polls. If you were going to enter the most intensely covered Senate race in the country a year late, you'd want to do it the way Lazio has. Not that Lazio's entry into the majors has been entirely graceful. His acceptance speech at the state convention, for instance, was enough to remind New York Republicans that until two weeks ago their candidate was just another congressman from Long Island. By chance, I got a front row seat at the speech and wound up sitting next to Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who until last month was working for Giuliani. Luntz had just come from giving a speech to a group of GOP county chairmen ("Sponsored by Pepsi," according to the program). He was in a mood to carp. As Lazio peered down at a text he seemed never to have read before, Luntz piped up in something above a stage whisper: "Does he shave yet?"


Lazio does seem young, but that's not his problem. (Youth may help him; a state senator who spoke earlier in the day informed the audience that his wife finds Lazio attractive.) His problem seems to be that he is not certain what he wants to say. So he says a number of different things, all in different people's voices.


For a time during the speech, Lazio mimics George W. Bush. Bush identified himself as a Reformer with Results. Lazio notes his own "record of reform and results." Bush frequently couples the words "opportunity" and "responsibility." So does Lazio. Bush promises to topple the tollgate to success. Lazio pledges to tear "down barriers to success for everyone." Bush frets that children will be left behind. According to Lazio, "Our goal must be nothing less than ensuring that no child is left behind." And so on.


Until he reaches the part of the speech about policy. At this point he abandons the conservative part of compassionate conservatism. Lazio doesn't mention a single red meat Republican issue. Instead he boasts of his work in Congress on behalf of the environment, the disabled, the elderly poor, missing children, residents of public housing, and "thousands of low-income women with breast or cervical cancer." Lazio doesn't come off as a liberal, exactly. But he doesn't seem like the ideological counter to his opponent, either. "I've heard Hillary say the same things 100 times," said one New York reporter afterwards.


On the other hand, Lazio isn't running against Hillary Clinton on ideological grounds. He's running against her on geographical grounds. Hillary Clinton isn't from New York. Rick Lazio is. That's the point Lazio and his surrogates make above all others. Again and again and again. At times during his speech, Lazio talks about New York so much he drifts into a kind of travelogue. Lazio praises "the storied skyline of Manhattan." He evokes "the postcard perfect vistas of the Hudson highlands." He waxes rhapsodic over "the quiet calm of the Finger Lakes." He also mentions the Great South Bay, Rome, the Adirondacks, Long Island Sound, the Southern Tier, the Hudson Valley, Lindenhurst, Montauk, Massena, West Islip, and the 2nd Avenue subway. Message: Rick Lazio knows New York. Well enough to give guided tours.


And well enough to recognize the importance of ethnic politics. Lazio is Italian. His wife, Patricia, is Irish. These facts are not insignificant in New York, where ethnicity still matters. In New York, politicians still reminisce from the stump about the Old Country, about stickball, pushcarts, and summer baths under the fire hydrant. It can be an effective shtick. It's harder to pull off if you're a baby boomer attorney who grew up in suburban Long Island. Lazio tries anyway, recalling his immigrant grandmother -- "'Mama,' we called her. . . . As a boy standing in her kitchen, I liked to hear Mama tell the old stories as she stirred a pot of sauce -- stories about Italy and America -- and maybe sample a meatball or two."


No one has ever claimed that Lazio didn't spend childhood afternoons soaking up earthy wisdom from a grandmother who glimpsed the Statue of Liberty for the first time from a boat. He probably did. It still sounded like a pasta commercial.


Once his speech is over, Lazio and many of the convention delegates move across town to a minor league baseball stadium. This is where Lazio will hold his last event of the day, the unveiling of his campaign bus. The bus is brand new and loaded with amenities, but in most ways it looks a lot like John McCain's old bus. Both have their website addresses and (noticeably similar) logos painted on the side, as well as on the roof, in the event of news coverage by helicopter. Both were leased not simply to carry the candidate and his staff, but to serve as the site of mobile press conferences. McCain's bus was called the Straight Talk Express. Lazio's is the Mainstream Express. The similarities, one has to admit, are striking.


While the crowd waits for Lazio and governor George Pataki to arrive, music blares in the background. It is the same music -- the same five songs, led by Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" -- that used to play at McCain rallies. Mike Murphy appears and is immediately surrounded by a group of reporters. A local ABC correspondent leans in with a microphone. "Will there be any similarities between this campaign and Senator McCain's?" he asks. "Not really," says Murphy, who happens to be holding a briefcase with Straight Talk Express luggage tags still attached. Murphy is sensitive to the suggestion that his latest candidate has simply purchased a prefab campaign. "It oversimplifies it to say, 'Just add water, it's McCain,'" Murphy says later. This is true. But Murphy could also defend Lazio by responding: Who cares? Since the New Hampshire primary, lots of politicians have tried to appropriate elements of John McCain's campaign style. Lazio does a better job than most. He is getting better with the press, for one thing. Though he has not had particularly good relations with newspapers in his home district, Lazio now talks about the importance of "being accessible to the media." He seems committed to answering most questions. This is in flattering contrast to his opponent, who hesitates to give any interviews at all.


McCain may be inspiring the Lazio campaign in other ways as well. The first stop on Lazio's bus tour is a small, family-owned dairy in down-town Syracuse. There are close to 100 reporters following Lazio. In a typical campaign only a few of them -- "the pool" -- would be allowed to follow him inside. The rest would wait in the parking lot for the speech afterwards. Lazio's staff invites everyone in. It's only 8:45 in the morning, but the inside of the dairy is sweltering. The floor is wet. The air smells like curdled milk. Lazio is standing next to an enormous vat of 2 percent, talking to a man in a hair net. The press horde is trying to cross the plant floor to get near him. The event is quickly approaching chaotic. The camera crews are working to thread their equipment around low-hanging pipes. Scores of reporters are scurrying over machinery, trying not to get their Rockports caught in the moving parts. An AP reporter plucks a couple of cartons of orange juice off a conveyor belt and sticks them in his coat. The whole scene is enough to send OSHA inspectors scrambling for their handcuffs. No one from the Lazio campaign seems to care.


In the end nothing terribly newsworthy happened. Except that the event -- an on-the-record political event in the famous New York Senate race -- was held without full choreography, without even tape marks on the floor, showing the candidate where to stand for the cameras. Which made it, in its way, a devastating attack on Hillary Clinton.




Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.