Hillary Clinton in live prime-time duel for Senate

US Elections: First Lady takes on Rick Lazio, Republican candidate in New York, in the first of three TV debates that may swing a close contest
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The Independent US

Millions of New York voters, from Long Island to Niagara, were preparing to settle in front of their television sets last night to savour the first live debate between the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her Republican foe, congressman Rick Lazio, in their statewide race for the Senate.

Millions of New York voters, from Long Island to Niagara, were preparing to settle in front of their television sets last night to savour the first live debate between the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her Republican foe, congressman Rick Lazio, in their statewide race for the Senate.

The clash, the first of three scheduled for the candidates before polling day on 7 November, was being heralded as pivotal for Mrs Clinton. She is striving to go down in history as the first wife of a sitting president to win election to high political office.

The race remains extremely close, even though recent polls have given Mrs Clinton a slight lead over Mr Lazio of between five and six percentage points. While she has been campaigning indefatigably across the state for almost a year, last night was her first chance to profit from statewide exposure.

Fascination with her run for office still remains strong. As many as 80 per cent of the New York voters were expected to tune into the debate as it was broadcast live during evening primetime from the studio of a public television station in Buffalo. Nor is the curiosity confined to New York. Millions more Americans were likely to tune in to MSNBC, the cable news channel, when it aired a taping of the debate nationwide later it the evening.

A large audience would reinforce the feeling of many that the New York senate race ismore interesting than many other contests this year, including the Gore-Bush match.

A little bit of history has already been made. On Tuesday, Mrs Clinton formally became the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat after winning a statewide primary election. Her challenger was a little-known Manhattan doctor. Even that win, though a forgone conclusion, was a first for a First Lady.

Both camps were rushing yesterday to lower expectations ahead of the debate. Aides for the First Lady stressed that it this was to be her first political debate "almost ever" - or certainly since her student days. While Mr Lazio could draw on his experience of congressional debates and debates inside the House of Representatives itself, his people said going up against a First Lady made his task especially daunting.

Each of them has been preparing feverishly for several weeks, rehearsing with stand-ins.

Mrs Clinton has had some help from the master of the art of debating, her husband. A spokesman for the White House confessed that the President had "dropped in and out" of her practice sessions.

Above all, Mrs Clinton will be under pressure to show off a softer side to her personality. While she had no voting record to brandish - while Mr Lazio has a clear legislative record - she does have the opportunity to start to dispel her image as over-ambitious and strident.

Mr Lazio, a youthful-looking 42 was, meanwhile, under orders to project the maturity expected of a leader. A Democratic consultant, Jeff Plaut, said Mr Lazio needed to show " gravitas and look senatorial, not like a boy scout. She has to appear genuine, not lecturing".

Policy differences between them, such as they are, were also certain to be aired. "Both need to be on their game about their policies," said David Birdsell, a public affairs professor at New York's Baruch College. "If she can't win on a perception of policy competence then she's dead. It's her best point. Lazio has to prove he's playing in the same league."

The outcome of the race probably rests in a few suburbs close to New York City. Recent surveys show Mr Lazio comfortably in front in upstate areas, while Mrs Clinton will clobber him in the city itself. He does much better among men, while she has a huge edge with women. At the heart of the battle is the Jewish constituency, which accounts for about 12 per cent of those likely to vote. Mrs Clinton lost ground two months ago after it was claimed that in 1974 she admonished one of her husband's campaign workers with a anti-Semitic slur.

A poll published yesterday by the New York Post, however, showed her attracting 61 of Jewish voters against 30 per cent for Mr Lazio.

Controversy flared earlier this week when the White House released a picture of Mr Lazio shaking hands with Yasser Arafat in 1998.

The White House said it was meant as a riposte to Mr Lazio for criticising the handshake at last week's UN summit between Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro. Clearly, however, the picture was meant to boost Mrs Clinton among Jewish voters. She was attacked last winter for kissing Mr Arafat's wife, Suha, after she delivered an anti-Israel speech.

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