Act II: It’s Mrs. Clinton’s Show

Candidates get better when they think they’re winning. Hillary Clinton has gotten better. She dominated yesterday’s debate. It was her show, with Rick Lazio playing a supporting role.

Mrs. Clinton spoke at her lectern with the fluidity and concentration of an Al Gore, unspooling her answers in full paragraphs, with each reply telling the story she wanted told. She presented herself as more in tune with the liberalism of New York, and in her final statement she did something I have never seen her do. Knowing that she was winning the debate, she uncoiled enough not to seem to be acting or reciting or manipulating but to seem to be sincere—and actually happy—as she gave a deft and effective tribute to the New York character, to what it means to be a New Yorker. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing that part over and over.

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Mr. Lazio and his people obviously game-planned his debate strategy with this in mind: Since he already has the anti-Hillary vote, he must now reach out with gentleness, with a more winning personality, to undecided voters who are thought to be uninterested in critiques of Clintonism. Moments after the debate ended, Gov. George Pataki said on CNN that Mr. Lazio was trying to get more voters to vote for him, rather than against Mrs. Clinton.

But this stance left Mr. Lazio in effect ruling out effective criticism, and not moving forward on rich target areas of attack. When moderator Marcia Kramer asked the candidates how they would respond to a U.S. Postal Service plan to put a five cent tax on each e-mail sent in America in order to recoup revenues lost to snail mail—an Internet hoax, not a real piece of legislation—Mrs. Clinton breezily told Ms. Kramer that, “based on your description,” she would not support the bill, that she thinks the Internet is a very promising development, and that she would take in general a wait-and-see attitude toward Internet taxation.

Mr. Lazio might have responded with an assertion of the difference between Mrs. Clinton’s views on taxation and his, and challenged her on her past support of her husband’s tax increases. He did not. He said he was against Internet taxation, and let it go.

Invited to elaborate on his past references on the stump to what is called the character issue, Mr. Lazio demurred, and instead spoke of his own history, accomplishments and character. Again, his strategy was obviously to make the case for himself and not the case against Mrs. Clinton. But the question remains: Can Mrs. Clinton be beaten in a state with five million registered Democrats and three million Republicans if her opponent does not focus on her history—again and again?

Mrs. Clinton seemed to anticipate Mr. Lazio’s Softness Strategy, and she made the best of it. At the beginning of the debate she referred in a challenging manner to his crossing the stage and approaching her with a soft-money ban in his hand. Thus she put him on the defensive for having, last debate, put her on the defensive. She challenged him also on the issue of trust, which in the past has been his issue against her—”Hillary Clinton—you just can’t trust her,” some of his most effective commercials have declared. But now she challenged him on breaking his own soft-money vow, which elicited from him his only clear, clean shot: “Mrs. Clinton, please—no lectures from Motel 1600 on campaign-finance reform.”

Mrs. Clinton was tough. She was also, almost invariably, smug. She seemed to know that Soft Rick wouldn’t body-slam her over her the Clinton administration’s failure to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution attacking Israel, and she used the question on it to stake out an assertion of her own independence. Pretty deft. She said Republicans “do not have the best interests of our country at heart,” and then claimed she is the real bipartisan candidate. She was not corrected. She seemed to know she would not be corrected. Mrs. Clinton now says “our” country where she used to say “the” country, and, when speaking of New York, goes out of her way to say “our” state, “our” roads, “our” bridges. (A friend of mine quipped: “our limos.”)

Mrs. Clinton’s primary problem continues to be an almost unrelenting charmlessness—a Nurse Ratched demeanor, a dead-eyed and rather joyless aggression that makes those who care about such things recoil. I say “almost” unrelenting, for at the close of the debate she showed an engagement that was almost charming.

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By the end of the debate, in the cutaway shots of the audience, Mrs. Clinton’s supporters were smiling. Mr. Lazio’s seemed to be concentrating, thinking. And maybe planning the spin.

One senses right now, with less than a month to go before the election, that conservatives are on the defensive, finding it very difficult to break through and reach voters with the soundness of their arguments. Clinton-Gore-Clinton attacks on conservative heartlessness seem to me to be taking hold in some immeasurable way; and the Clinton-Gore spin that criticism of their derelictions, flaws, foibles and scandals is a “personal attack” and “the politics of personal destruction” seems also to have life in it, chiefly because the Republicans have thus far failed to refute it.

Nothing is over, almost four weeks remain, but in the sense that you’re either rising or falling, I do not have a sense that Mr. Lazio is rising.