Why Rick Lazio Shouldn't Be Too Mean to Hillary

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New York's feistier Democrats might be tempted to nominate Hillary Clinton again, now that she's got an opponent. The First Lady had a restraining order on New York Democrats at the state convention in Albany two weeks ago, because she didn't know who her opponent was going to be, and her likeliest one, Rudy Giuliani, had cancer and the marital blues. Tuesday night in Buffalo, Rick Lazio and the Republicans knew exactly who they were up against — the entire nation has known that for some time — and they didn't pull many punches. "When it comes to representing the needs, concerns and values of the people of New York, I have one advantage that she will never have: I can be myself; I am a New Yorker," Lazio intoned in his acceptance speech, to a crowd fully accessorized with anti-Hillary bric-a-brac. "You see for me, New York isn't just a mailing address, it's my home." So, Rick, where ya from?

Yes, Lazio is a good Long Island Italian, a local boy from the suburbs, and he's eager to play the scrappy underdog, taking the stage to the strains of "Rocky" and joking that he'd like a rematch with the pavement that split his lip Monday. Never mind that after only a week, he's statistically even in the polls, or that with state Republicans (and, you can bet, the party's national PACs) behind him in his quest to beat a Clinton, any Clinton, he'll have running money by the truckload. And at this point Lazio might want to take a page from Hillary's playbook and play it cool just a little bit. Lazio won his current seat by clamping his jaws on the jugular of Gore buddy Tom Downey and not letting go until Downey was dead — but nobody was watching much then. This is virtually a national election, thanks to the current job title of Lazio's opponent, and it's television and blanketing national ink that make mantras like "I'm from New York and she's not" get tiresome fast.

"Even as an unknown, Lazio has a very good chance because the party is behind him and because of Hillary's high controversy level," says TIME New York correspondent Elaine Rivera. "But it's important that as voters get to know Lazio, they like him. He has to be very careful not to blow this chance to make a good first impression." Lectern-thumping and name-calling for the paying faithful is standard operating procedure for a political convention. But it may not look so good under the daily spotlight of a long and scrutinized campaign. As Lazio comes on in a telegenic rush, Clinton is quietly creeping around the state, sticking steadfastly to issues and safe shots like Lazio's ties to Gingrich. Her negative ratings are already high enough to give the ghost of Nixon himself a shot at this thing, and they were that way before Lazio ever said a word. Lazio's negatives, meanwhile, are almost nonexistent. When he takes off on his own statewide tour this week, he might be wary of letting Clinton keep that high road that Giuliani's cancer forced her to travel, and changing what may be this race's most important dynamic: who dislikes whom more.