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.