Bowing to pressure from Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, Rep. Rick Lazio has decided to put his senatorial aspirations on ice until the party's stronger candidate, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, decides to formalize a bid for the seat being targeted by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, GOP sources said today.
Lazio, a four-term House member from Long Island and a favorite of Pataki, was scheduled to announce his Senate candidacy next week. That announcement could have set the stage for a bruising primary between Lazio and Giuliani. To preempt that possibility, Pataki last Friday unexpectedly urged Lazio to step aside while Giuliani makes his decision. While not offering an outright endorsement of Giuliani, with whom Pataki has had a long-standing feud, Pataki said the mayor had "earned the right to be [the] candidate."
Lazio had repeatedly said he would be in the race and told supporters in a letter late last month -- in a reference to Giuliani's presumed national aspirations -- "It's clear to me that New Yorkers want a senator who cares about them and their problems, not someone who is interested in a stepping stone to higher office."
Lazio planned to declare his candidacy Aug. 16. Today, however, a party source confirmed reports that Lazio will announce the deferment of his Senate ambitions at a Wednesday news conference.
Pataki's move to stop Lazio came in the face of national Republican fears that an internecine battle in New York would weaken the party both here and nationally and pay dividends to Hillary Clinton. The first lady has been moving through the state slowly but steadily in recent weeks on an exploratory "listening tour" that has placed her front and center on the political stage.
Today, she concluded her second day of "listening" here in New York City, Giuliani's political turf, with a discussion in Queens about work and family with local activists, mothers, workers and political leaders.
Neither Giuliani nor Clinton has formally announced a candidacy, but both have established exploratory committees and are aggressively raising money for potential bids for the Senate seat being vacated next year by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D).
On Monday, Giuliani said he was in no hurry to announce his candidacy, and today he said that "everybody has escalated this election way too fast. People are going to be really bored with it in about three months if we don't slow it down a little."
Otherwise, the mayor refused to comment about Lazio's intentions. "I don't pay any attention to anybody else's campaign," he told reporters. "I've got my own decisions to make, campaign to put together, money to raise, political support to gather. I'm not going to pay attention to anybody else's campaign until some time a year from now when this election really gets started."
Short of outright campaigning, Giuliani and Clinton have been waging a low-grade political war of innuendo: Giuliani by highlighting Clinton's non-New Yorker status, such as when he recently visited her previous home state of Arkansas; Clinton by reaching out to Upstate and suburban New Yorkers, suggesting that she can best empathize with their concerns. Though she has never held elective office, Clinton said today that voters can look at her years of work on educational reform, economic development, job creation, health reform, family and welfare issues.
"So I've got a lot of experience that I will talk about and that I will put forth," she said.
Clinton and her aides have attempted to stay above the Republican fray. "I try not to think about issues I have no control over. What the other party does is strictly their business" was all she would say today.
But party spokesmen today exchanged potshots on the real or imagined similarities between the Republican sidelining of Lazio and the sidelining of the ambitions of Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who withdrew early in June as a possible Senate candidate when Clinton's intentions became clear. Lowey had repeatedly said she would not run if the first lady was interested in the race.
"It's very telling that, after months of talking, Rick Lazio is not much more than a Pataki lackey, allowing the governor's vice presidential ambitions to trump the congressman's," said Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
Said Dan Allen of the state Republican Party, "That's rich coming from a Democratic Party which has pushed a New York state candidate off the stage and anointed an outsider to come and run in our state."