Posted on May 22, 2000 in Washington Watch

With the 2000 presidential race on low simmer, media attention has focused on a few hotly contested Senate elections with New York, New Jersey and Michigan leading the pack. Even with the announcement that New York City’s Mayor Rudy Guiliani will not seek the Republican nomination to run against Democratic First Lady Hillary Clinton for the New York Senate seat, that race has dominated recent headlines and will continue to do so for weeks to come.

The Michigan reelection bid of Arab American Republican Senator Spencer Abraham has also attracted national press because of the fierce negative ad campaign being waged by Abraham’s opponents and supporters.

For months now, Abraham’s pro-immigration positions have been sharply attacked in television, radio and newspaper ads spearheaded by an extremist anti-immigration group. Now that a group more supportive of Abraham has begun to sponsor harsh attacks in response, some are calling for a truce. There is a fear that if these independent, negative ads aren’t rained in, the real issues and the real personalities of the candidates will not emerge as the focus of the campaign. As it stands, what voters are learning about the candidates are crude caricatures drawn by the ads.

Another Senate race that is highlighting the power of money and advertising is the Democratic primary contest in New Jersey where former Governor Jim Florio is locked in a tough battle with former investment banker Jon Corzine.

For months, Florio was favored to win, but billionaire Corzine has been spending $3 million a week saturating New Jersey with television and radio ads, both against Florio and for his own candidacy. The contest is now dead even in recent polls.

Corzine’s expenditures of $25 to $30 million of his own funds to advance his campaign has set a record for the most money ever spent in a primary campaign. He is facing the obvious charge of “attempting to buy a Senate seat.”

But the national attention given to these two races pales in the face of the media frenzy surrounding the New York Senate contest between First Lady Hillary Clinton and the man who for more than one year was believed to be her probable opponent, New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

This past week Mrs. Clinton, who is now most commonly referred to by her campaign as just “Hillary,” received the formal nomination by New York’s Democratic Party. It is now official, she is the Democratic nominee to replace retiring New York Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

New York’s Republicans, even at this late date, are still not certain who their candidate will be but with their state convention on May 30, the mystery must be resolved by then.

For one year now, it appeared certain that Guiliani would be the Republican nominee. He campaigned like a candidate and he raised money like a candidate. To date, the Guiliani campaign has raised about $20 million and spent about $11 million. And yet, the New York Mayor never formally announced his candidacy.

The past three weeks have been tough for Guiliani. They were framed by the announcement that he had prostate cancer that would require treatment, and by the announcement that he was separating from his wife after New York newspapers featured photos of the Mayor’s new “girlfriend.”

In the face of those challenges, Guiliani began to equivocate. At first, he indicated that he wanted to deal with his health and personal issues, before formally announcing his candidacy. Then after weeks of delay and speculation, the Mayor finally announced he would not run. This turn of events has sent a shock through Republican circles nationally.

Many Republicans felt that they could win the New York Senate race with a strong candidate like Guiliani on the ticket. Guiliani’s national support was based to some extent on his reputation as Mayor but was also the result of the strong dislike many Republicans have for Mrs. Clinton. In recent days, reporters have tracked down and interviewed major donors to the Guiliani campaign from outside of New York State. In most instances the common refrain was that their support of Guiliani had been linked to their desire to “stop Hillary.”

There is now anger and confusion in the Republican camp. Some are obviously disappointed by Guiliani’s infidelity to his wife. Others are frustrated by the prospect that the millions he raised and spent may have been squandered in vain. Others simply want another Republican to quickly put a campaign together to get on with the business of defeating Mrs. Clinton.

Now that Guiliani has decided not to run, there is no shortage of candidates to fill his slot. Almost all are less well known, with the exception of New York’s current Republican Governor George Pataki. Leading contenders at this point appear to be two Long Island Republican Congressmen: conservative Rick Lazio and moderate Peter King. If either are chosen they will need some time to develop statewide name recognition. What is fascinating, however, is that no matter who emerges as the eventual Republican nominee, the basic character of the contest will remain the same. In fact, at this point, some of the lesser-known candidates may even become stronger challengers to Mrs. Clinton. Commenting on this, former New York Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato said, “I think Hillary now should be more fearful of the unknown.” He went on to note that if Guiliani decided not to run and was replaced by Republican Congressman Rick Lazio, “Lazio would not only be formidable, but [he] wins.”

In many ways, Guiliani was already a wounded candidate. His handling of a number of issues involving police brutality had hurt his public image among some voters. Questions about his health would no doubt have affected him. More damaging still would have been his behavior with his marriage. His infidelity and separation would have erased any advantage he may have had with those who were troubled by the Clintons’ marital problems.

In fact, the major advantages that helped Guiliani build support for his race can now be transferred to any Republican–and may be better used by a less encumbered Republican.

There are two deciding concerns in this New York contest. The most important one remains the intense dislike Republicans have for the Clintons. The far right’s contempt for the President and his wife still remains a key factor in this race, no matter who runs against Mrs. Clinton. Added to this is the fact that for some New Yorkers’ there is resentment at Mrs. Clinton’s decision to move to the state and run for office there. They use the term “carpetbagger” to describe her move. “Carpetbagger” is a derisive word that was originally used to describe northern politicians who moved to the south to administer that region after it was defeated in the U.S. Civil War.

In addition to this “Clinton factor” the New York election will also be decided on issues. While Guiliani, and some of the other possible Republican candidates, share Mrs. Clinton’s liberal stances on what are called the “social issues” (abortion, homosexuality, immigration, etc.) there is a deep divide on economic policy and budget priorities.

This is, no doubt, why in her address to last week’s New York Democratic convention, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly stressed that “this election is not about me or my Republican opponent…it’s about children; it’s about families; it’s about our future.”

For months now polls have shown that this contest was dead even. One week Clinton was ahead an insignificant point, the next Guiliani was ahead an equally insignificant point. What has been important to notice is that for over six months neither of the two has garnered more than 45 percent. Also important are the very high number of voters who are solidly in either camp and the relatively small percentage who are undecided.

Even after Guiliani has dropped out and is replaced by a less well-known Republican, polls show that Mrs. Clinton’s numbers versus any of these potential figures do not rise more than one or two points. Within a few weeks after a new candidate emerges, he or she would be locked into the same dead heat against Mrs. Clinton.

For their part, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has already begun to prepare to attack whomever comes forward to run against her.

As expected, this New York race will be hot and mean. The fury that it will generate, however, will move very few voters. Most voters have already made up their minds, for or against Hillary, for or against Democratic or Republican priorities. In the end, for all of its fury, all of the money that will be spent, and all of the national attention it will draw, this race will most probably be decided by only a few hundred thousand voters.

But, between now and then, it will be a major battle, and like a few other hotly competitive Senate races will continue to draw national press attention at the expense of the presidential races.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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