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Clinton hits Lazio over campaign reform in New York debate

NEW YORK (CNN) -- First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton deflected a pointed question about her marriage and Rep. Rick Lazio defended his campaign finance reform pledges as the two New York Senate candidates met in a second debate Sunday morning.

Clinton, Lazio
Lazio and Mrs. Clinton are competing for the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan  

The candidates met in Manhattan for an hourlong forum hosted by New York's WCBS-TV and moderated by WCBS-TV Political Correspondent Marcia Kramer.

The first lady took a tougher tone in the debate than in the candidates' last encounter, repeatedly trying to link Lazio to the conservative Republican leadership in Congress and sharply accusing him of violating their agreement to refuse unregulated contributions -- "soft money" -- in the campaign.

Hillary Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio in their second debate in the New York Senate race (Part 1)

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Campaign finance reform provided the most dramatic moment in the candidates' last encounter, held in the upstate city of Buffalo in September, when Long Island congressman Lazio confronted Clinton with demands she sign a deal to eliminate the use of soft money in their campaigns. Clinton refused at the time but later signed on to an agreement that her campaign now accuses Lazio of violating with a television ad partly paid for with Republican Party funds.

"Mr. Lazio's campaign violated a very simple agreement that we entered into. It was a self-enforceable agreement that anyone could follow and see whether we were abiding by it," Clinton said.

"Last month, Mr. Lazio said this was an issue of trust and character. He was right. And if New Yorkers can't trust him to keep his word for 10 days, how can they trust him for six years on issues like Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs and education," she said.

Lazio responded by again raising complaints about the Clintons inviting contributors to stay at the White House.

"Please, no lectures from 'Motel 1600' on campaign finance reform," he said.

Lazio insisted his campaign paid for the ad with a direct contribution and has not used soft money in his campaign. He has ordered aides to pull the ad in question.

"I did that quickly. I responded to it and I did it ethically," he said.

Sunday's debate came just two weeks after both candidates agreed not to accept soft money, the unlimited donations made by individuals and groups to political parties. The 30-second ad that sparked the latest dispute emphasizes Lazio's sponsorship of legislation that would allow disabled individuals to return to the workplace without losing their Medicaid benefits.

Lazio spokesman Dan McLagan said Friday that the ad's initial airing was paid for by the Lazio campaign, but subsequent airings were paid for with Republican Party money.

Although Clinton had challenged Lazio to a soft-money ban after he entered the race in May, the issue lay dormant until Lazio brought it up at their first televised debate September 13. Clinton signed the pact only after Lazio produced signed pledges from 14 conservative groups, including the Republican National Committee, to refrain from running soft-money ads.

Though both support the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill banning soft money, Clinton supported public financing for campaigns, while Lazio criticized it as "welfare for politicians" and said a candidate's ability to raise money should be viewed as a measure of support.

'We have a family'

A dramatic moment came early in the debate, when, citing questions submitted online by the audience, Kramer asked Clinton why she didn't leave her husband "after all the revelations and pain of the last few years."

The first lady tried to turn the focus back on her Senate campaign but noted that her daughter, Chelsea, was with her in the audience.

"We have a family that means a lot to us," she said, adding that "My experiences will give me insight on what I can do to be a good senator."

Offered a chance for rebuttal, Lazio said the focus of the Senate race should be on issues rather than personalities. "I think this was Mrs. Clinton's choice, and I respect whatever choice that she makes," he said.

During Sunday's debate, the four-term congressman stressed his experience working with both Democrats and Republicans, citing instances where he crossed party lines to support Democratic bills and urging New Yorkers to keep "a foot in the other party of influence" in the Senate.

"I've worked with a lot of people to make sure that New York got treated not just fairly but well," he said.

Lazio defended his support for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, which Clinton criticized at several points during the debate, by saying his votes for Republican bills on welfare, Medicare and spending helped create today's economic climate.

"I believed in those things then. I believe in those things now, and I think the votes that we took back then helped put us on the path where we are able to make the investments in education, we're able to reduce the welfare rolls, able to reduce taxes and create jobs here in New York."

Abortion, Israel and a stadium

Lazio generally supports abortion rights, but he criticized Clinton for her opposition to a ban on a late-term procedure that critics call "partial birth" abortion. Clinton said she could support a ban as long as it had exceptions for the life and health of the mother.

They also split on the question of a publicly funded domed stadium for Manhattan -- Lazio supports the idea, Clinton opposes it.

Clinton said she supports "step-by-step" progress toward universal health care; Lazio said her 1993 health care reform proposals would have been an "unmitigated disaster" and pointed to his support for expanded tax breaks for health care and research.

Both blamed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for not doing more to stop the violence in the West Bank and Gaza since a visit by Israel's controversial opposition leader, former Gen. Ariel Sharon.

In closing comments, Clinton criticized a campaign fund-raising letter from Lazio that told voters they only needed to know six words about the race: "I'm running against Hillary Rodham Clinton."

"I think New Yorkers deserve more than that," she said, instead offering six issues: jobs, education, health care, Social Security, the environment and abortion rights.

"I want to fight for education, for health care, for the environment and a woman's right to choose," she said. "They're part of what I've done my entire life and part of what I've done with this administration."

Added Lazio: "I think that we have an opportunity here in New York to send a message nationwide. Let our message be that it's people, rather than government, that we trust most." Writer Matt Smith contributed to this report.



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