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The opening of the great Senate debate series between first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio reinforced two truths.

The first truth is that Tim Russert has become the best ambassador to the world that Buffalo has ever had, or may ever have.

The onetime chief of staff of Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Russert engineered the senator's triumphant 1982 re-election campaign. He has reached the pinnacle of the television news business in the decade and a half since he left partisan politics.

It is a mark of that rare man who knows who he is that he not only acknowledges his roots, but brags about them -- not in a patronizing manner, but in a way that puts his hometown in the best possible light.

Wednesday night he referred to Buffalo as "God's country," as indeed it is.

More than any other television anchor, NBC's Russert has been unstintingly generous with references to his hometown and institutions, ranging from his church to Canisius High School to our beloved Buffalo Bills.

To a community waiting for more good economic news, the cheerful notice Russert gives Buffalo around the nation and the world week after week on his CNBC talk show and "Meet the Press" is irreplaceable and priceless.

The second truth buttressed by the debate at Channel 17 is that this contest is still mired in the distant past.

It is still about Lazio's perforated voting record, and how Clinton initially reacted to stories that she had been publicly humiliated by her husband.

There can be little doubt that the questions Russert chose for Clinton had a lot to do with this antique coloration.

In replaying her January 1998 "Today" show interview in which she denied her husband had an affair with White House aide Monica Lewinsky, Russert, the moderator, introduced in the most devastating way an old topic that her opponent would never dare to broach.

If the idea was that Clinton's 1998 answer to the Lewinsky issue was supposed to touch on her sense of honor and truthfulness, that possibility was trashed earlier in the week when it was disclosed that the president couldn't bring himself to tell her the truth about him and Lewinsky, so he got his lawyer, David Kendall, to do it.

The question was a very shaggy, wet hunting dog let into the WNED-TV studio. The only thing that gave it an aura of validity was the moderator's clever use of the prop of videotape.

Another debate novelty was the graphic. Russert employed it to ask Clinton about her role in crafting the universal health care proposal in 1993. The graphic quoted Moynihan charging that the program would undermine New York State's teaching hospitals.

If Clinton seemed puzzled at the quote, there may be an explanation. Moynihan never publicly voiced these criticisms during the two years he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which weighed, and finally killed, the White House health care plan.

Long after the plan was dead, Moynihan aides began leaking this fear about medical schools and rationing of doctors. Moynihan himself waited until the fall of 1995, nine months after the Republicans regained control of the Senate, to write anything about this concern.

Asked about the origins of the Moynihan quote in the debate graphic, Russert aides said last Thursday that it was taken from an article Moynihan wrote for the New York Times in November 1999.

So here was Clinton before the world in the year 2000 asked to ad lib about a question never publicly posed in 1993 and 1994 when the health bill was being crafted and debated.

Throw in the videotape about the controversial ad in which Lazio was brazenly portrayed as a pal of Moynihan's, and the question by Scott Levin, anchor for Gannett's WGRZ-TV, about a 30-year-old story on radiation published in Gannett's USA Today, and there wasn't a lot of opportunity left to ask the candidates much about the federal government.

With two more debates to go, there may be time to ask the candidates about the United Airlines/US Airways merger and its effect on upstate cities. The failure of the Clinton administration to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to cut oil and gas prices should have come up.

Watching that debate, you would never have known that the triangulated trade policies that produced the North American Free Trade Agreement might have played a role in stripping upstate of a lot of its industrial jobs.

You wouldn't have known that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Moynihan and Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato never found a female worthy of being proposed for a federal judgeship in Buffalo or Rochester.

Perhaps New Yorkers may yet hear about the federal government if somebody stuffs the videotapes and other props in the remaining tilts.

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