Struggling to gain momentum in his fledgling Senate bid, Republican Rep. Rick Lazio faces a dilemma as he seeks support among Jews.
His decision: focus on his own record and positions on Israel and other issues, or go for the political jugular by attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton on controversial positions she has taken.
Lazio will offer an indication of which path he chooses this weekend when he meets with dozens of Jewish leaders in a closed-door session Friday and participates in the Salute to Israel march on Sunday. He has been invited to participate in a right-wing concert following the parade that is sure to be a forum for bashing both President Clinton and the first lady.
His comments to the Jewish leaders at a meeting coordinated by Republican Jewish activist George Klein are likely to be closely scrutinized. Lazio, who entered the race two weeks ago after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani withdrew, might choose to recall his own visits to Israel and detail his views of the peace process. Or he can rip Clinton for supporting Palestinian statehood two years ago and for kissing the wife of Yasir Arafat after she maligned Israel in November.
Republican consultant Roger Stone predicted that Lazio would do both.
"He has to make up a lot of ground," said Stone, who said it would not necessarily be perceived as negative campaigning to contrast his own stance on Israel with Clinton’s. "I don’t think it’s negative to compare somebody’s issue positions with yours. I don’t think he’ll accuse her of insincerity. She sincerely tilts toward the Palestinians."
Lazio might also choose to pick up on the Republican National Committee’s strategy of linking the Rev. Al Sharpton to Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, both of whom have held meetings with the controversial activist. The withdrawal of Giuliani, a polarizing figure for many blacks, may make it more difficult to ignore Sharpton, since Clinton can no longer take minority votes for granted.
"Mrs. Clinton’s statements on Israel, her relationship with Al Sharpton and her position on Jonathan Pollard are all fair game, and I think Congressman Lazio will point all that out," said former Giuliani campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum, who is known to be advising Lazio on Jewish issues.
But there are dangers inherent in going negative.
Former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (to whom Lazio has been likened by many commentators in recent weeks) won an abnormally large share of the Jewish vote for a Republican in 1986 and 1992 because of his staunch support of Israel and other causes.
But in 1998, rather than rely on that record and his later efforts to win compensation from Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors, D’Amato blasted Democrat Charles Schumer and suggested the Jewish congressman from Brooklyn would not be as forceful an advocate as himself in the Senate.
In a meeting similar to the one Lazio is to attend Friday, D’Amato famously denounced Schumer as a "putzhead," upsetting several of the Jewish leaders in the room. The senator’s Jewish support dropped from 40 percent in 1996 to just over 20 percent as his re-election bid went down in flames.
Although Lazio is seen as more even-tempered than D’Amato, he has lashed out at Clinton. At the state Republican convention in Buffalo Tuesday, he said Clinton "comes to New York with the support of every left-wing special interest, from Washington insiders to the Hollywood elite." And he accused her of practicing "the politics of division."
Clinton responded by accusing Lazio of voting "against New York’s working families in Washington." She has also attacked Lazio’s willingness to appear on the Independence Party ballot line with neo-isolationist Pat Buchanan, and by contrasting her view on gun control with the congressman, who opposes national handgun registration.
Lazio’s campaign spokesmen could not be reached for comment Tuesday, as the congressman accepted the Republican nomination at the state party convention.
But a Jewish source close to Lazio, who declined to be quoted, suggested that a campaign ad featuring the infamous Suha Arafat kiss would be too good to pass up, and that the congressman would point out distinct differences in his perception of Israel and that of his opponent.
Martin Begun, a former president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York who was to nominate Clinton for the Liberal Partyís endorsement Saturday, said both candidates would do well to focus on national issues.
"They both have laudable records on Israel," said Begun. "[Lazio] would be better off focusing on where they differ on the domestic scene."
The selection of an awardee for Sunday’s annual breakfast of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty has caused some political shock waves.
Queens Councilman Walter McCaffrey is scheduled to receive a community service award at the Manhattan breakfast. McCaffrey is mounting a primary challenge to Rep. Joseph Crowley, the handpicked successor of former Rep. Tom Manton, chairman of the Queens Democratic organization.
Manton initially backed a coup against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last month but later backed off. He may have been aware that Met Council is run by William Rapfogel, the husband of Silver’s chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel. Crain’s New York Business reported that Manton was miffed that an Albany lobbyist with ties to Silver, Brian Meara, has been raising cash for McCaffrey.
A source said that someone acting on Crowley’s behalf called Jewish leaders trying to thwart the award, but was told that the organization chose its awardees shortly after last year’s breakfast, before McCaffrey announced his congressional bid.
Silver said he was unaware McCaffrey was being honored. "This is the first I’m hearing of it," he said last week.
A front-page article in last week’s edition of the Forward regarding Hillary Clinton’s fund-raising among Arab Americans is an example of "chutzpah" and "sheer bigotry," says the president of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby.
The article reported that Clinton was "fattening [her] campaign war chest" by attending a fund-raiser with a prominent Arab American, Hani Masri, although it conceded that "no one is denying the right of Arab Americans to become involved" in politics.
Only one Jewish leader, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, was quoted as taking issue with the event. Hikind recently said on his radio talk show that he would like to see Clinton antagonize the Arab-American community.
"This was a pathetic attempt to make a story," said Zogby. "If we had an Arab-American paper that wrote stories like this we would have the ADL on our case, and justifiably so. They called Masri a ‘crony’ of Arafat. They could just as well have called him a ‘crony’ of Shimon Peres. He is very supportive of the peace process."
Meanwhile, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone is wearing his denunciation by an Arab group as a badge of honor.
An aide to Vallone last week faxed a statement from the American Committee on Jerusalem, a coalition of Arab-American organizations, expressing concern that a May 10 resolution sponsored by the Queens Democrat "undermines the Mideast peace process." The resolution commemorated the reunification of Jerusalem by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"The issue of Jerusalem is too important … to be reduced to a constituency service issue," said ACJ president Rashid Khalidi.
Vallone spokeswoman Bernice Spitzer said the speaker "remembers that when he went to Israel prior to 1967 he was unable to go to Jerusalem. That’s changed with Israeli jurisdiction over the city."