Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) didn't sound like a junior pol who'd been told by his seniors what to do. In fact, as he announced the suspension of his bid for the Senate yesterday -- an announcement that was urged by Gov. George E. Pataki (R) -- Lazio sounded downright combative.

He is not leaving the race, Lazio said. He's just keeping his "powder dry."

"I am the better candidate. I am ready to get into this race. . . . I don't agree with Governor Pataki here, but I am doing this out of respect for him," Lazio said at a Long Island news conference.

That was his message for Pataki. His message to the party's presumptive candidate, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was basically: Put up or shut up.

His actual words, though, were more elegant: "New York Republican Chairman Bill Powers has asked Mayor Giuliani, for the good of the party, to make his decision by August 31st. I am deferring my decision for the good of the party. I call on Mayor Giuliani to put aside his personal agenda and do something for the good of the party as well: make his decision by the end of this month. Every day that passes without a GOP candidate in the race is a good day for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats."

Giuliani doesn't necessarily see it that way, for he spent the day up in Cooperstown and reiterated in a session with reporters that he won't be hewing to anyone else's timetable. Asked if he did indeed plan to run for the Senate seat being vacated next year by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), he matter-of-factly said: "It looks that way."

But during a luncheon speech to local Republicans, the mayor sounded more candidate-like, saying, "I would like to do for the entire state what I've done for New York City."

A `Good' Tax Bill, but . . .

Texas Gov. George W. Bush said he would happily sign the $792 billion Republican-approved tax cut bill if he were president, but indicated he would prefer to see tax legislation that gave more relief for working families with lower incomes.

In an interview published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Bush said he hopes to unveil his plan this fall and indicated it will be about the same size as the congressional bill and would reduce marginal tax rates.

But he said he would recommend "a somewhat different distribution" of benefits, tilted to providing a greater share of the relief for taxpayers with incomes below $30,000. He also is looking for ways to remove some of the disincentives that exist for lower income Americans who face the loss of certain federal support payments as they earn more money.

Bush called the Republican measure "a good bill," but advisers said it doesn't fully reflect his priorities. That may not be a problem for Bush, given President Clinton's threat to veto the GOP plan.

Bush advisers say the Republican presidential candidate likely would wait until Congress and the president resolve their differences, if they do. "It makes a huge difference as to what is advisable or possible to recommend," one adviser said yesterday.

"What happens in this battle will impact what he proposes," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

At this point, Bush's economic advisers are looking at tax cuts rather than a dramatic rewriting of the tax code, as some other GOP presidential candidates have proposed. "It reflects the reality that it's hard to rewrite the tax code in a campaign," one Bush adviser said.

Bonior Loses a Challenger

Michigan Secretary of State Candice Miller abruptly dropped her challenge to House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) yesterday, stunning Republicans who counted her among their prized recruits in a battle for the House in 2000 that will turn on a handful of hotly contested races.

Miller said she believed she could defeat Bonior but after much thinking decided she would rather stay in the job she was overwhelmingly reelected to last year. "It was strictly a personal decision," she said in a telephone interview.

Michigan Republicans were left reeling by the news but said they hoped businessman Brian Palmer, who picked up 45 percent of the vote against Bonior in 1998, would get in the race and self-fund at least part of his campaign. Bonior already has socked away $327,000 for the race.

"This came as a surprise," said Sage Eastman, spokesman for the Michigan GOP.

Democrats could barely contain their glee. "This is obviously a severe blow to their recruitment efforts for 2000," said John Del Cecato, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman.

Staff writer Dan Balz and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.