Will Hillary and Rick Come Out Swinging?

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There is a palpable sense of uncertainty in Buffalo on Wednesday. As reporters and political analysts from around the world gather in this upstate New York city for the first debate between U.S. Senate candidates Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, one perplexing question looms above all others:

Will Bill be there?

The President isn't scheduled to be in the audience to witness his wife's freshman debate; he plans to watch from the White House. But, as several papers report, his aides have left part of his day completely open, so a surprise arrival isn't out of the question. Hillary may be hoping her husband stays in Washington; whatever psychological support gained from his presence could be overshadowed by the nagging fear that he'd be tempted to leap onto the stage, rip the microphone from her hands and launch into a diatribe detailing his own accomplishments.

Of course, that prospect, however stirring, is not what has gathered this international press corps. The presence of the First Lady has not only attracted record-breaking campaign contributions from across the country, but it has also ratcheted up an unprecedented level of curiosity in a race that would normally be of interest to New Yorkers and a few Beltway types. And tonight both candidates have clear directives.

Clinton, who may as well incorporate "carpetbagger" into her legal name, needs to convince voters and the press that she has a compelling stake in the future of New York State. It's an unenviable task, made even more difficult by the fact that Clinton has lived here less than a year, has no children in the public school system, and looks really bad in a Yankees hat.

For his part, Lazio will be forced to reckon with his image as a lightweight. Interloper or not, Clinton is a formidable, occasionally forbidding public speaker, and her presence alone suggests a certain degree of seriousness. Not so Lazio — except among his die-hard supporters, the baby-faced congressman is not known for doing much other than running against Clinton. And while that characteristic is apparently compelling enough on its own to attract hefty contributions from swarms of anti-Clintonites, it's not enough to win the election.