Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) didn't march into Hillary Rodham Clinton's personal space this afternoon. But he did get in her face verbally during the third and final debate of their Senate campaign, attacking her for much of the hour as an untrustworthy candidate and a public policy disaster.
Lazio dipped in the polls after his aggressive performance during their first debate last month, as his semi-sprint across the stage seemed to alienate women voters. But while there was no physical confrontation today--the candidates were seated across a table--Lazio was just as aggressive with his rhetoric.
He interrupted the first lady repeatedly, and even raised his voice a few times. Once, as Lazio was accusing Clinton of promoting violence in the Middle East, moderator Gabe Pressman of WNBC-TV broke in: "She has a right to respond."
That said, Clinton often seemed to ignore the substance of Lazio's critiques of her as a big-government liberal who doesn't trust people to make their own choices, except to say that she was running a campaign of issues rather than insults. At one point, she fumbled uncharacteristically over the details of low-income housing legislation, Lazio's main area of expertise in Congress. And when she suggested that he had eased safety standards for manufactured housing to appease his campaign contributors, he angrily pointed out that the Clinton administration had supported his bill.
"That's absolutely false and you know it," Lazio shot back. "There's one thing I won't tolerate, and that's being dragged into the mud."
With a little more than a week to go in the campaign, Clinton has a slim lead in most polls. After a brief flurry of positive advertising a few weeks ago, Lazio has clearly decided he needs to raise more questions about the first lady's credibility and ideology to gain ground. This election, he said today, is "based on one simple word: Trust."
Clinton, meanwhile, has framed the election around traditionally Democratic issues: education, health care, the economy, the environment and abortion. In her closing statement today, she adopted the mantra of Vice President Al Gore, who is expected to win New York easily: "You can trust me to fight for you."
During the debate, Lazio blasted Clinton's education reform efforts in Arkansas, her tight alliance with teachers unions, her support for a Palestinian state, her campaign donations from anti-Israel Arab Americans, and her lack of connection to New York. The first lady often laughed openly while he was talking, and several times rolled her eyes. "You don't know where to start with Mr. Lazio," she said after his attack on her "failure" in Arkansas. "He does go on."
Clinton said she was proud of her education reforms in Arkansas, professed independence from teachers unions, said she only supported a Palestinian state within the context of a peace settlement, and noted that she has returned the disputed donations. She tried to defuse the carpetbagger issue with a reference to the Yankees victory in the Subway Series: "I was struck by how people who weren't born in New York delivered for New York."
The afternoon's oddest exchange came after Pressman told the candidates that it seemed as if they disliked each other. Clinton said she had "no personal animus" toward Lazio, and said he seemed nice. So Pressman asked her to name three things she liked about him.
"He's got a nice family," Clinton said. "He's an attractive young man."
Lazio was then asked the same question. He said the first lady was "an attractive woman." "I'm sure she's a good mother," he said.
After the debate, Clinton's spin control team announced that Lazio had proven himself to be a bully. Lazio came to the spin room in the WNBC studios himself to complain that he had never heard so many distortions in an hour.