Round 1 to Lazio

That sound you’ve been hearing, that wind softly rattling the window panes—that’s New York state’s three million registered Republicans breathing a sigh of relief. Rick Lazio’s got what it takes.

He won Wednesday’s debate. He not only won it, he won it by winning and not just by coming out even. He didn’t treat Hillary Clinton with kid gloves; he treated her like a pol who deserved a punch, and he swung. Crossing the stage with the agreement not to take soft money was masterly, reviving an old debating tactic—surprise your foe and don’t let go—and making every front page in the state. But most of all, Mr. Lazio engaged—he looked at her, talked to her, put the spotlight on her—and laughed.

All of it good stuff. But the most riveting moment, and the one that will be long remembered, was NBC’s Tim Russert’s use of videotape to confront Mrs. Clinton with her famous Matt Lauer “Today” Show interview when the Monica story broke. This was something new—I don’t remember ever seeing a debate moderator use taped clips of a candidate’s past interviews, and I’m surprised Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lazio agreed to it, if they did.

Mrs. Clinton’s angry visage in that two-year-old tape, her bitter hardness, were fascinating to see after all this time. (So was the way her face has changed, which I don’t think was lost on anyone watching. It made you think of the old chameleon charge, “This woman will do anything and be anyone to win.”) And it is that—how she acted in the Lauer interview, the charges she made, and how she would now have to address her actions—that made Mrs. Clinton gulp, not the general subject matter, which she’s been handling smoothly for two years. But then she’s never once been pressed on her part in the Monica matter, or pressed for an apology for her statements.

She was very lucky in Mr. Russert’s choice of clips; he did not include the “vast right-wing conspiracy” but only referred to it later himself, and he did not include the most deadly quote from that interview, when Mrs. Clinton told Mr. Lauer: “When this is over some folks are going to have a lot to answer for.” Still, when Mrs. Clinton’s answered Mr. Russert, she floundered and lost her footing—”That was a very, a very painful time for me, for my family and for our country”—which was fascinating to see, because Mrs. Clinton is very smooth and doesn’t flounder. But she probably didn’t think anyone would ever play that old footage right in front of her and then insist on a response.

What a moment. Mrs. Clinton’s people are hopefully spreading the spin that Mr. Russert’s challenge will start a new round of sympathy for Hillary, who, they say, was a victim of that scandal. But one senses that people no longer view Mrs. Clinton as a sympathetic figure, that 18 months of seeing her operate as a hardball, hard-gut pol has diminished her ability to seem the victim.

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Here is why I think the debate was important, even crucial. Mrs. Clinton had a strong voice and a steady gaze and she touched on all her issues and she looked attractive. But she was cold, and programmed, and when she tried to be tough and assertive she seemed sarcastic and Madame Nhu-ish. She did not lose any friends in the debate, but she didn’t make new ones. If you tuned it not liking her, you didn’t like her when it was over. She pleased her base. She didn’t didn’t move forward.

If you tuned in not liking Mr. Lazio, you may have changed your mind or begun to change your mind. He’s not sleazy or dark; he’s bright and winning. He was equal to his opponent, and maybe more than that. When he was tough with Mrs. Clinton he seemed not snarky but strong—”I agree that Mrs. Clinton has a record in education, and it was a disaster.” “I think that, frankly, what’s so troubling here with respect to what my opponent just said, is somehow that it only matters what you say when you get caught.” He seemed like a normal person, not like a programmed political windup doll. And though he still looked young, did you notice the hair in front that’s suddenly going gray? He wanted you to, I think. He combed his hair in front in a way that seemed to accentuate the grayness. (He’ll be on the stump upstate today saying things like, “Yeah, my first gray hairs—I’m calling each of ‘em Hillary.”)

He made new friends and showed doubters he was big enough to take Mrs. Clinton, which is half of what he has to do in the campaign.

Both candidates, stuck at about 45% in the polls, needed new friends. I think he got them and she didn’t.

But the other half of what Mr. Lazio has to do in the campaign—prove he’s big enough to hold the Moynihan seat, prove to New Yorkers that he has sufficient heft to be their senator—really remains to be done.

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Mr. Lazio must more forcefully communicate his brand of compassionate conservatism, which he speaks of with engagement and feeling in private and inadequately on the stump and in commercials. I have had one private conversation with him, and he told me that he is a Republican who wants to help with the “rungs.” He said it is a legitimate function of government to help new immigrants and people in crisis to grab a few rungs on the ladder and pull themselves up and out. But he didn’t believe in the old-fashioned ways of doing this, the old tax-and-spend bloated government ways; there are other approaches that are both more effective and more constructive. It was really interesting what he said, and he ought to share it on the stump.

He also flattered me by saying—I didn’t take notes, so I quote from memory: “I have a big question that’s been on my mind and if you have any thoughts I’d like to hear.” I said sure. He said, “How do I on the one hand maintain the right level of combativeness toward an opponent and at the same time effectively communicate how the new Republicans think and what we believe? How do I break through on my philosophy?” I didn’t know what to say, because I was so surprised. I have heard politicians ask questions in private about the big thing that’s on their mind, and it’s always fund-raising or how do I get the teachers union or if I do this will the press say that. It’s never about meaning or philosophy.

I told Mr. Lazio this, and he started to laugh but continued to press: How to make his beliefs clear, how to show what new Republicans, the young Republicans, believe in? I said I guess he just has to start talking about it.

He was refreshing. Yet while I don’t see him much on the stump, it’s not my impression that he’s breaking through in this area as he should.

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There will be another debate. A chastened Hillary will fight back hard. Next time she’ll have her own version of crossing the stage with a soft-money agreement, she’ll have her own version of Happy Warrior. Her aides are focus-grouping the debate right now, and they’ll be giving her lines and advice to counter what didn’t work this time.

It will continue to be close. It ain’t over until the first lady sings. But I will be surprised if Mr. Lazio doesn’t get a boost in the polls from Wednesday’s performance. And if he uses that boost to make it a stronger, deeper campaign it could mean everything.

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Wednesday’s debate was the best in New York since the Lewis Lehrman-Mario Cuomo debate of 1982. That meeting was wonderful, in part because it served the public by focusing on meaning. Messrs. Lehrman and Cuomo spoke of the big things—the proper role of government, what it should expect of us and do for, and to, us. The Clinton-Lazio debate showed us two people, to the advantage of one and the disadvantage of the other. It was revealing in part because there was a moderator who pressed each candidate to reveal and respond and answer. But neither candidate really dealt enough with belief—she, one suspects, because she knows her true beliefs would not be attractive to a lot of voters, and he I think because he falls into the unconscious defensive crouch of Republicans in New York. They are a minority group; they fear being misunderstood; better just to smile. But they can’t, or rather their leaders can’t.

New Yorkers were well served in this first Senate debate. They got a sharp sense of who was at issue; next time, one hopes, they’ll get a sharp sense of what is at issue.