Soft-money wars continued in the U.S. Senate race Wednesday, as Rep. Rick A. Lazio produced a list of private organizations he said have vowed to stay out of the campaign if Hillary Rodham Clinton agrees to stop accepting help from soft-money donors.
During last week's debate in Buffalo, after Lazio waved in Clinton's face a pledge not to accept soft money, she said she would consider signing it only if he persuaded outside Republican and conservative groups to stop attacking her with soft-money issues advertising.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, here they are," Lazio told a group of newspaper editors and reporters gathered in a hotel outside Albany as he waved a packet of pledges from 14 mostly conservative organizations saying they'll stop their soft-money activities against Clinton.
Soft money involves unlimited donations to outside groups, including party organizations, that can use the funds to run advertising and other programs designed to help one candidate over another -- though they cannot specifically urge that voters support any one candidate. The accounts get around strict limits on, for instance, contributions by individuals to Senate candidates.
"It is a matter of holding Mrs. Clinton to her word," Lazio said, adding that the issue would be "an opportunity to establish some credibility" for the first lady.
Later, Clinton told the newspaper group that she is "prepared" to agree with Lazio on a soft-money ban, which she said she first proposed months ago. But she said the sides would still have to discuss such a soft-money treaty. Lazio, in turn, said he would give Clinton 72 hours to resolve the matter or he would "fight fire with fire."
A poll released today by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion found the race remaining very tight, with the two tied at 48 percent each among likely voters.
But a New York Times/CBS News poll released Wednesday night found the first lady leading Lazio, 48 percent to 39 percent.
Both polls were conducted since the Sept. 13 televised debate in Buffalo. Both found evidence that Lazio may have been hurt by his move to get Clinton to sign the soft-money ban. In fact, the Times/CBS poll found that 56 percent of women who watched the debate felt Lazio was too aggressive, while 53 percent of men felt that way.
The Marist poll found Lazio's unfavorability rating had climbed to 38 percent in the wake of the debate, up from 32 percent before the debate. That unfavorability rating is approaching Clinton's 42 percent.
The Marist poll also found that, by a 44 percent to 28 percent margin, voters felt Lazio was spending more time than Clinton on the attack rather than issues.
Aides to Lazio and Clinton were meeting today at a Manhattan hotel to discuss the soft-money ban.
However, a deal between Democrats and Republicans -- both adept at raising soft money and finding ways to legally skirt campaign finance laws -- will be elusive. Democrats have no intention of asking labor unions to cease their work on Clinton's behalf -- as Lazio insisted Wednesday they should.
"I suspect there will be an agreement to solve the problems in the Balkans and the Middle East before these two people reach agreement," said David Keene, chairman of the Washington-based American Conservative Union, one of 14 groups that signed Lazio's pledge.
Keene said Clinton has no incentive to disarm herself from her ability to tap into soft-money accounts.
As Lazio sought to keep the soft-money issue alive Wednesday, Clinton tried to highlight her campaign's focus on the upstate economy, reiterating a number of targeted programs needed to help the lagging region, while bashing Lazio for his optimistic views on the economy.