Here’s My Advice To ‘The Laz’

“You may remember I was always for Lazio. I never thought Rudy was really right for it, I was pulling for Rick.” So said a former Republican official and party donor about Rick Lazio, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new opponent in the race to be senator from New York.

In fact I didn’t recall his enthusiasm, though he may well have felt it. He just didn’t talk about it much.

Republicans in New York are talking now, though. It’s hard to exaggerate the relief and delight they are feeling after watching “Rick Who” campaign these past three weeks. They’ve seen him, they like him, and one senses they’ll be referring to him by the nickname his campaign aides use: The Laz. Short a, as in “Ah.”

The Long Island congressman is in a good place. The latest poll, from Quinnipiac University, has him even with Clinton, each with 44 percent of the vote. In the past few weeks, he’s gained 10 or more points, depending on which poll you’re using. And Lazio’s aides say it’s better than that. Clinton has been touring the state and campaigning hard for a year, she has 100 percent name recognition, and yet she seems stuck in the mid-40s. Lazio is still introducing himself to the electorate. He has room to grow. Clinton may not.

Lazio campaign aide Mike Murphy says, “Fifty-four percent are really against her. Hillary has replaced the glass ceiling with a steel one. Those last four points are a million miles for her.”

Lazio has already won the support of the Conservative Party, which New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would not have received. He is not expected to inspire a big turnout to vote against him, as many said Giuliani would have. And Clinton’s message seems untooled and still unclear. Murphy: “No one in the state can really answer the question, ‘What has Hillary Clinton ever done for New York? How has she earned this? Are we a stepping stone to New Hampshire?’ And she’s too liberal for New York. She doesn’t fit, ain’t earned it, don’t want it for the right reason.”

So it looks like one thing Lazio doesn’t need right now is advice. But why should I let that stop me? If I were on board the Mainstream Express, the bus in which Lazio has pulled a McCain, touring New York and making himself completely accessible to the media, this is what I’d tell him:

Congressman, the great job for your campaign now is to keep breaking through, keep making strides. And you can do that by being audacious and daring. But here’s the challenge: It’s hard to be audacious and daring and do the other big thing you have to do, which is not make a big mistake. That’s really the challenge at the heart of modern media politics now, how to push the envelope hard, like a hero, and not wind up pushing it too hard, like a doofus.

Keep being happy, and don’t get spooked. Happiness is a gift and always good, and your friendly enthusiasm and good humor are contagious. As for being spooked, the Clintons have been giving Republicans the willies since 1993. Their campaign organization is always considered to be the sharpest, their campaigning peerless. But Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has plenty of problems—infighting, disagreements on theme. And beyond that, I gleaned an insight on my recent book tour that might be helpful: I made the case against Clinton on radio talk shows, and listeners called in angrily. I asked them to make the case for Clinton’s senate candidacy. And they never did, not one of them, not once. Instead, they’d change the subject.

It told me something that her own supporters couldn’t make the case for Clinton. But it’s easy to make the case for Rick Lazio, based on your background and beliefs, your votes and your stands. You should be specific, because Clinton isn’t and can’t be. She’s afraid that if she talks too seriously about her beliefs and desires she’ll turn off moderates. But if you talk about where you’ve stood—as a relative conservative on fiscal matters, a relative liberal on social issues—you’ll please moderates.

There is a seemingly small thing that is not without meaning, and it’s that you have a real Long Island accent. Which is to say: You sound like you’re from New York. My advice? Talk like you talk. The words you grew up with are the words Clinton doesn’t use and cannot use. You sat on the stoop, not the steps, the girls played potsy, not hopscotch. You stood on line, not in line, for footlongs, not hotdogs, and said, “Let’s get Carvel” which is New York for, “Would you like ice cream?” The talk you grew up with is rich with the great ethnic words of the eastern port cities, from schlemiel to Maronna (which is Neapolitan for “Mother of God!”) Forget “putzhead.”

Candidates unconsciously clean up their speech and make it more official sounding, less colloquial, when they speak in public. Try not to do that all the time, congressman. Remind voters that you come from where they came from.

The teachers’ unions are all for Clinton. But that doesn’t mean all the teachers are; they’re not. Make the union’s support of Clinton an albatross around her neck.

The unions won’t let her support the school liberation movement— vouchers, truly independent charter schools, the works. When you announced your candidacy, you were asked by a reporter where you stood on vouchers, and you said that in the toughest cases and the toughest places it’s immoral not to let kids find something better. Not impractical—immoral. Keep that up. When people understand school liberation, they’re for it.

And you’d be amazed how many teachers are taking a look at you. A friend of mine who is a public school teacher on the Island is about to become one of your volunteers; another teacher at her school just sent money to a campaign Internet site for the first time in his life- -and it was yours. Teachers felt they couldn’t vote for Giuliani because of how he treated teachers in the City, where he held up their contract. But when he dropped out, that made it more of a ballgame.

Give teachers the reassurances they need and deserve on where they fit in and how they will benefit from school reform. Surprise everyone with a TV spot called “Teachers for Lazio.”

Pundits put down what they call your puppy-dog quality. They call it undignified, and say “Down Rick, down!” Don’t listen to that. Be yourself. In this race the two candidates could hardly be less alike. Clinton’s face is opaque, guarded; voters have to make their way past the Secret Service and the rope line to go to her. You are expressive and open; you reach out, even lunge, to shake voters’ hands. She is watchful, you are exuberant. True, you sometimes fall down and she never does. But your ingenuousness contrasts well with her artifice. So don’t squelch yourself. She has to do soft-focus commercials, sweater thrown over her shoulder and “Tin Cup” pearls, whose subtext is: I’m not a terrible person, I’m normal! You don’t have to prove you’re normal—some people think you’re rather too normal, i.e., too average.

You have to do commercials that show you’re serious, that you stand for certain clear and understandable things, and that you mean it when you talk about them.

As soon as you were nominated, you hit Harlem. That was great. But now, Enrico, go to Spanish Harlem, to Queens—the great international mini-city, home of the new immigrants—again and again. Go everywhere Democrats are expected to go, everywhere Clinton thinks she has an edge, and hit those places hard. Show from where you go that you can go anywhere—while she only goes to neighborhoods where she has a chance of support. She wants a mere plurality, you want the people.

Writers for elite and mainstream newspapers and magazines are doing another round of think pieces on what they call “hostility” toward Clinton: Why do all these New Yorkers say they dislike her so? What engenders such passion? The suggestion is that she is a “lightning rod,” or as Clinton herself says, a “Rorschach test” for our emotions; she is a breakthrough woman, and people “fear change.”

The truth is rather simpler than that. After seven years, everyone knows a story about Clinton that gives them reservations about her. For some it begins, “There were these people who worked for years in the White House travel office . . . “ For others it is, “She came up with this big bureaucracy health care thing in secret.” For still others it is all the lawsuits against the first lady by former White House staffers in the e-mail case, or the Filegate case. For some it is Yankee Hillary, Jewish Hillary, Kissing-Mrs. Arafat-Hillary, Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Hillary.

It is often remarked that no one has absorbed all the stories and scandals of the past seven years, that normal Americans don’t have time to study them and remember them. But everyone remembers one, and a lot remember two.

Congressman, you should ask those involved in some of the Clinton low points to do commercials for you. A former staffer who faced threats over the missing White House e-mails, for instance. Or Billy Dale, who was fired from the travel office.

Turn the tables on Clinton. She’s been trying to brand you as a radical, “a Gingrich clone.” Fine. You’re not a radical, but you can ask if she is one, and by using her own words. Quote from what she’s written about children’s rights, and the state and its rights over those of parents. Get your hands on that mysterious college thesis they’ve been hiding up at Wellesley all these years. Show how radical the health care plan was with its command-and-control-style liberalism.

Some people think debates will be tricky for you, but I don’t see why they should be. True, if you come out tough, Clinton may play Wounded Lady, look at you softly and say, “What really counts, congressman, is the children, not personal attacks and the politics of personal destruction.” And if you’re soft, or what used to be called gentlemanly, she’ll probably a) eat your lunch, b) blow your doors off, and c) pull down your pants.

What’s a fella to do? Come straight out swinging, with an opening statement that acknowledges with respect Clinton’s well-earned reputation for toughness. And acknowledge that toughness is appropriate, for politics is a serious and meaningful business that can make the lives of our people better, or worse. Say with a nod that you accept her toughness, and would never patronize her by showing anything less in response. Then blow her doors off.

She has a temper—and when she’s tired, it shows. If she swings back wildly, sit back and enjoy. If she hits hard, hit back harder. Use wit; she doesn’t. Use good humor and joy. Be a happy warrior.

I thought a Clinton-Giuliani debate would be like Marie Antoinette versus Jake LaMotta, the raging bull. You make it more like Marie Antoinette versus Jimmy Stewart. You’ll be better because you won’t be as nervous as Giuliani would have been; he had a lot to lose, she could ruin him. You have nothing to lose; win and you win, lose close with style and you have a big future. She’s the one who’s got to win now.

And above all, stay happy. Stay hungry. This is fun. This is one of the great battles. You can’t lose, really, unless you blow it, big time.

And you’re not going to, are you? Because deep down you know something.

You know you’re going to win.

That’s why you’re always smiling.