N.Y. Gets a Whole New Horse Race ; with Mayor's Exit, Senate Battle Could Become Referendum on Hillary Clinton

Article excerpt

In just a few tumultuous days, the stage for a titanic battle for New York's Senate seat - one of the only hot tickets in a rather drab political season - has been completely reset. With new characters and a new set of political dynamics, come untold questions about how the plot will play out.

The only thing it proves, say the pundits, is that there's nothing predictable about politics.

But Rudolph Giuliani's exit from the race may pose a different set of challenges for the Democratic contender.

"The race suddenly becomes about Hillary [Rodham] Clinton," says Republican analyst Jay Severin. "Deprived of someone else's baggage, she's now got to talk about genuine particulars."

Her new opponent is expected to be Rick Lazio, a Long Island congressman who many say lacks the gritty audacity of New York's mayor.

Mrs. Clinton, for her part, says the race will now be about issues, and not personalities. "This will be a race of clear contrasts, because we've got very different stands on education, healthcare, the future of the economy, and issues concerning children and the elderly," she says.

At the same time, Democratic operatives were cheerfully discussing the congressman's "Gingrich-like" voting record, a reference to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

New actor takes the stage

But Mr. Lazio, who characterizes himself as a moderate Republican, signaled he was ready for the fight. At his old high school gym in Islip, N.Y., a sure symbol of his local roots, Lazio assailed Clinton as overly ambitious and too "far left."

"She is no more a New Democrat than she is a New Yorker," he told a crowd of cheering supporters who had been waiting for this announcement since last summer, when Lazio bowed out of the race in deference to Mayor Giuliani's greater name recognition and perceived win-ability.

Lazio signaled he'd make Clinton's "ambition" a top issue in the new battle. And while the race has lost much of its operatic drama with the departure of the once larger-than-life mayor, it is likely to retain the national stage. It is, after all, the first time a first lady has run for office, and then there is the national emotion, good and bad, connected with anyone with the name Clinton.

But the unpredictable nature of the new race is also expected to keep the audience's attention. People will be watching to see if the boyish-looking, four-term congressman has the mettle to take on Clinton, who's spent the past year visiting every county in the state. …