||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: New York Senate race far from settled
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The exit of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) from the New York state Senate race dramatically scrambles that contest. But it doesn't necessarily mean Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton can coast to election in November.
While Rep. Peter King (R) briefly indicated interest in the race, New York state Republicans immediately began rallying behind Rick Lazio, a 42-year-old, four-term congressman from Suffolk County. And Lazio, who once considered challenging Giuliani in a primary, could turn out to be a stronger foe for Clinton than the mayor.
Giuliani looked like a much weaker opponent for Clinton after the last New York City shooting. The mayor rushed to defend the cops and appeared insensitive to the victim's family. Polls showed a shift in voter sentiment in the race, with women increasingly preferring the first lady to the mayor.
Lazio lacks the mayor's polarizing personality and his arrogance, and the former Suffolk County legislator is more personable and likable. That said, his initial criticisms of Clinton may have been too negative.
A centrist who has supported gun control and environmental protection, Lazio should be able to hold onto every Republican voter who preferred Giuliani to Clinton. But he'll lose a few Independent and Democratic voters, particularly in New York City, who were impressed by the mayor's successes and his liberalism.
The congressman needs to make up that shortfall Upstate, where voters were wary of supporting a New York City mayor, even a Republican like Giuliani. Lazio, from Long Island, should sell better Upstate. And he is appealing enough to get virtually all of the anti-Clinton vote.
Democrats have made it clear how they will adjust their message. They say they will paint Lazio has a loyal follower of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a lieutenant of the Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey. And they'll use Lazio's record against him, portraying him as too conservative to represent the state.
Lazio started his bid this weekend by proclaiming that he is the underdog, a role that he says he relishes. And given the Democrats' advantage in voter registration, Democrat Chuck Schumer's Senate victory over Al D'Amato last year, and Vice President's Al Gore's advantage in the presidential contest, Clinton begins with a significant advantage.
But while any Democrat begins with an edge, Clinton gives some of that up because of her carpetbagging and the controversial nature of her candidacy.
Giuliani's exit from the race may shake out one mess: what the third parties will do.
The Conservative Party, which had been unlikely to support the mayor unless he supported a ban on late term abortions, is preparing back Lazio. The party supported him in his past contests, and while he is "pro-choice" and supports family planning, he has voted to ban late-term abortions.
The Liberal Party had been set to back the mayor, primarily because Liberal Party boss Ray Harding is a close ally of Giuliani. But without the mayor in the race, the Liberals will line up behind Clinton.
That leaves the Independence Party (the state's version of the Reform Party) up for grabs. Clinton has said she won't accept that party's nomination if Pat Buchanan is at the top of its ticket. Lazio, however, has indicated that he would run on the party's ballot line.
Money shouldn't be a problem for either Senate candidate. Clinton has been fund raising for months, while Lazio begins with more than $3 million in the bank. As the beneficiary of anti-Clinton feeling in the state and the nation, Lazio should be able to scrape up the funds that he needs to compete.
There is one big question surrounding Lazio's candidacy: his stature. Democrats portray him as lacking gravitas, and his youthful appearance -- he is 42 but could pass for 25 -- adds to that impression.
But if the congressman can hold his own over the next few weeks, show competitively in the polls, and emphasize his experience, any questions of stature will melt away. And Lazio, a subcommittee chairman in the House, can erase any and all remaining questions about stature if he holds his own against Clinton when the two candidates meet in debates.
While Democrats didn't have as clear a strategy against the mayor, they have a road map against Lazio. Clinton is likely to run against the congressman the way most Democrats run against Republicans. She'll be able to focus on issues, link him to controversial Republican figures and try to tap the partisan advantage she has in the state.
Polling begins by showing Clinton ahead. Lazio is likely to get something of a bounce after his announcement. This race has a long way to go.