Rick and Hillary Battle to a Bloody Draw

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Rick Lazio confronts Hillary Clinton about "soft money"

It was as knock-down, drag-out a fight as you're likely to see this year: Two sharp-tongued opponents, lashing out at each other at every opportunity — and inventing those opportunities during rare moments of calm.

Wednesday night, U.S. Senate candidates Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton bared their teeth at each other in Buffalo, N.Y., bickering and occasionally answering questions from the local press and local voters. Throughout the assaults, both candidates remained grimly composed. There was an abundance of contemptuous laughter — the kind of snicker you force out when you're trying to show an audience that your opponent is lying.

They got down to business right from the starting bell. Lazio attacked Clinton on her lack of a record. Clinton assailed Lazio's role as Deoyt Whip under Newt Gingrich. Lazio shot back with a doozy: "You, of all people, Mrs. Clinton, should not bring up guilt by association." You almost expected the audience to hiss.

But they didn't (it was a very well behaved group), and the debate went on. And although the proceedings were short on substance and long on vitriolic style, each candidate managed to chalk up a few points here and there.

For instance, Clinton couldn't quite muster the conviction required for a convincing response to the voucher questions (she's against them, but she and the President sent Chelsea to an exclusive private school); Lazio didn't have a cogent explanation for his vote against the Patient's Bill of Rights. Occasionally, during a defensive response, the Representative appeared petulant: "I am a doer!" he cried, in defense of his record. "I did get the job done!"

And if he wanted to abandon the high road altogether tonight, he got the job done there, too. Lazio really hammered home the Bill-Hillary link; it's hard to say whether his efforts, combined with those of host Tim Russert, pushed the boundaries of good taste. The most squirm-worthy moment came when Russert played a clip of Clinton's infamous 1998 "right-wing conspiracy" interview on the "Today" show, showing the First Lady in full denial over her husband's adultery. Back onstage, Russert pressed Clinton over the circumstances: Why did she lie? "I didn't know," she said, in a voice much lower than usual. "I didn't mean to mislead anyone."

With just 10 minutes remaining, Lazio pulled a thin sheaf of papers out of his jacket and waved it around. "This is a soft-money ban," he crowed. "If my opponent will agree to sign it, we'll have it in writing." Clinton asked Lazio if he'd agree to get signatures from his various political associates, who, she insinuated, have found a way to pay for campaign ads without counting them as contributions. Lazio replied he'd do whatever it took to get the deal done. Russert took up the cause, asking Lazio for specifics. Nothing got signed, but Lazio got his point across, even abandoning his podium to approach Clinton with his papers.

In the end, it looked like a draw, albeit a bloody one. Even as the credits rolled and the candidates headed off to their corners — they probably needed a nice stiff drink — there was some lingering tension over Lazio's forceful proffer of the soft-money ban, and even the unflappable Russert looked slightly befuddled.

One round down. Two to go.