'I survived' says first lady after bruising TV duel

No holds were barred in Hillary's televised battle for votes
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The Independent US

All of New York, from bagel sellers to political professors, is trying to calculate the impact of Wednesday night's often startling televised encounter between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio in their battle for a US Senate seat. The first lady offered this as her assessment: "I think I survived."

All of New York, from bagel sellers to political professors, is trying to calculate the impact of Wednesday night's often startling televised encounter between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio in their battle for a US Senate seat. The first lady offered this as her assessment: "I think I survived."

Was it as bad as that? The New York Daily News summed up the 60-minute clash with this front page splash headline: "In her face."

In other words, Mr Lazio, a congressman from Long Island, battered his rival without pause and without regard for her sex or her status as the wife of the President.

Their exchanges made for considerable drama - and good television. However, it was the moderator of the debate, Tim Russert, a political anchor and talking head for NBC, who perhaps caused the greatest stir. He raised the Monica Lewinsky mess and challenged Mrs Clinton to explain why she had gone on television in January 1998 to insist that her husband had done no wrong.

This was not a one-sided mauling, however. Mrs Clinton, who has a very slight lead in the polls, did her best to undermine Mr Lazio, repeatedly reminding voters that he had served as deputy whip to the now discredited former House speaker, Newt Gingrich. She accused him of "chutzpah". Mr Lazio lampooned her as "positively Clintonesque".

Almost physically confronting her, Mr Lazio left his podium near the end of the debate to thrust a document towards the first lady's face. With her signature, it would have committed both of them to giving up so-called "soft money," the campaign funding that outside groups can raise for candidates.

"Mrs Clinton, if you agree to do this, you'll be making a statement about character and trust to the rest of the country," Mr Lazio pushed. "Why don't you show some leadership?"

As remarkable as the acid in the atmosphere, however, was the substance that both candidates injected into the hour. Mrs Clinton, in particular, returned relentlessly to the issues that separate her from her rival, trying to paint him as too conservative. She attacked his proposals for tax cuts, for school choice and health reform.

The chutzpah punch came from the first lady as she ridiculed Mr Lazio for portraying himself as a moderate. "He stands there and tells us he is a moderate, mainstream Republican when, in fact, he was deputy whip to Newt Gingrich," she mocked. "He voted to shut the government down. When he had a choice to make he stood with the Republican leadership."

Mr Lazio, firing back, accused Mrs Clinton of redefining the Yiddish term. "You, of all people, should not try to make guilty by association. Newt Gingrich is not running in this race. I am running. Let's talk about my record."

Most analysts surmised that each candidate had done what had been required of them in the debate.

Mr Lazio, with his aggressive one-liners, surely went some distance to undo his image as a nice but goofy guy. Mrs Clinton had been effective in fending him off and displaying her command of the issues. The assaults upon her, from Mr Russert especially, may also have bought sympathy for her. "You know, Tim, that was a very, very painful time for me, for my family and for our country," she said, her face drawn tight. "It is something that Iregret deeply that anyone had to go through."

Did either side win on Wednesday? Who knows? David Lawrence of Fordham University said: "Neither side did [anything] that will dramatically affect the small number of undecided voters. My guess is that the polls don't move."

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