Hillary tames opponent and lands some punches

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The Independent US

Having withstood a near-savaging in the first debate of her New York Senate race a month ago, Hillary Clinton encountered far more muted opposition from her Republican challenger, Rick Lazio, in their return match yesterday, enabling her to land a few quietly devastating punches of her own and consolidate her widening lead in the polls.

Having withstood a near-savaging in the first debate of her New York Senate race a month ago, Hillary Clinton encountered far more muted opposition from her Republican challenger, Rick Lazio, in their return match yesterday, enabling her to land a few quietly devastating punches of her own and consolidate her widening lead in the polls.

The First Lady faced no new attacks over the Monica Lewinsky affair, and the word "carpetbagger" - a favourite of Mr Lazio's to highlight her hasty reinvention as a New Yorker - was not mentioned once.

Instead, Mrs Clinton pushed her opponent on to the defensive on campaign finance reform, one of the issues he lorded over her last time, and tarred him by association with the hard-right Republican leadership in Congress.

Mr Lazio, a congressional representative from Long Island, tried so hard to hide his tiger claws he came across as a pussycat. Aware that his previous super-aggressive approach had backfired on him in the polls, he seemed unsure of his debate strategy and spent much of the 60-minute exchange blinking and smiling nervously. By contrast, Mrs Clinton looked cool and poised.

The sharpest exchange, and Hillary's crowning moment, was a direct follow-on from the biggest showdown of last month's debate. Mr Lazio had strode across to Mrs Clinton's podium and demanded she sign an agreement banning so-called "soft money" - unregulated corporate contributions - from their campaigns.

Although she refused to concede the point then, Mrs Clinton signed just such an agreement a few days later. The whole thing has backfired on Mr Lazio, because of a television advertisement sponsored by Republican Party soft money that he was forced to withdraw last week.

Mrs Clinton, quoting an editorial in The New York Times, accused Mr Lazio of breaking his word, and turned all the accusations hurled at her about dishonesty and lack of integrity back at him. "Last month Mr Lazio said that this was an issue of trust and character," she crowed, with barely concealed triumph. "He was right. And if New Yorkers can't trust him to keep his word for 10 days, how can they trust him for six years [in the Senate]?"

On Mr Lazio's legislative record, Mrs Clinton laid into his carefully cultivated image as a moderate and claimed he had voted consistently with the Republican leadership in Congress and toned down his positions only on returning home to New York. "Time and time again, my opponent only tells you half the story," she said.

Mr Lazio made unconvincing attempts to call his opponent "extreme" on abortion issues, and to make political capital out of her failure to introduce universal health care in the first term of her husband's presidency.

Arguably the toughest challenge Mrs Clinton faced was a question about her marriage, inspired by viewers of CBS television, which sponsored the debate. Why, she was asked, had she stayed with her husband?

Revealingly, Mrs Clinton alluded to the right of every woman to make her own choices, and talked of the importance of her daughter, Chelsea, who was in the television studio audience. In her answer, however, she did not refer directly to Bill Clinton at all, and made only one vague reference to the importance of her "family".

* George W Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, is now just two percentage points behind his Democratic opponent, Vice-President Al Gore, according to the latest daily tracking poll from Reuters and MSNBC television yesterday. The poll put Mr Bush on 42 per cent of the vote against Mr Gore's 44 per cent.

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