How Hillary's Stumble Leaves War Chest Woes

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Hillary Clinton may have broached the issue — but Rick Lazio drove it home. Early Sunday, after two weeks of increasingly embarrassing obfuscation, and four months after she proposed a similar ban, Clinton agreed to a deal with her opponent prohibiting the use of soft money for campaign advertising. The deal, penned by opponent Lazio, could herald a great rush of belt-tightening over at Clinton headquarters.

The suspense was beginning to gnaw at Clinton's popularity ratings: Late last week, it was clear Clinton was up against a wall; there was no way for her to avoid the issue altogether without appearing untrustworthy — after all, Lazio not only met her debate-night challenge by collecting cease-and-desist pledges from various soft-money donors, but he never demanded reciprocation. And it wasn't just Lazio's impeccable timing that pulled the rug out from under Clinton: The agreement itself puts her at a distinct economic disadvantage — something Lazio may well have considered as he made the issue his own.

At last count, Lazio had more than $3 million more in available "hard" funds than Clinton (the only type of money the campaigns are permitted to use for ads), and her aides say they expect the gap to broaden over the remaining weeks. The disparity means Lazio can afford to push advertising campaigns without fearing equal retaliation from Clinton. And she faces other looming roadblocks. According to the New York Times, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) sounded a mutinous chord this weekend, suggesting that while they respected the intent of the agreement, they weren't at all sure they were willing to stop their issue advertising (which favors Clinton over her opponent). If NARAL ignores the letter of the agreement, you can be sure Clinton will pay the price.

Of course, Lazio runs a modest risk here as well: He's now set himself up as a golden boy of campaign finance reform. If unregulated GOP cash finds its way into his budget, Lazio's credibility could suffer severe damage.

But it seems unlikely the issue will prove a major stumbling block for Lazio. For the Clinton campaign, however, the danger is immediate and considerable: Not only has she raised questions about her commitment to a soft-money ban by hedging over the agreement, she's allowed Lazio to hijack an issue she once controlled. Lazio met her demands, gathered those signatures, and showed up at her doorstep like a proud cat presenting a hard-won mouse to its horrified owner.