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CLINTON, LAZIO SPARRED OVER SAME OLD ISSUES

The Clinton-Lazio debate has resulted in an enormous output of oral and written verbiage from so-called political experts and committed and uncommitted voters. Given the depth of feeling about the candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio, the comments must be viewed as biased. The only conclusion a neutral observer can draw is that New Yorkers have two candidates with real differences between them.

The debate between the two candidates trying to fill the seat of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has generated a surprising amount of media attention. Neither candidate raised any new issues. The themes of both reflected what they have been saying on the campaign trail for some time.

They disagreed on what path the nation's fiscal policy should take. They expressed their differences on education and the prescription drug policy under Medicare. They pointed up differences on school vouchers, casino gambling and the status of the upstate economy.

A major attention grabber was the reaction to debate moderator Tim Russert's showing of a tape from the January 1998 Today show in which Clinton defended the president against charges of sexual impropriety. Another was the debate finale, when Lazio challenged Clinton to sign a pledge against use of soft money.

Some observers have criticized Russert for asking Clinton if she would now apologize for suggesting that her husband's critics were part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. His raising the issue was legitimate debate fodder. The Monica Lewinsky scandal definitely is playing a role in this Senate campaign.

Russert's question temporarily threw Clinton off stride. She hesitated momentarily, looked at her hands and responded slowly and cautiously. To her credit, she did not manifest anger in her expression or response, pointing out: "I didn't mislead anyone. I didn't know the truth. My husband has certainly acknowledged that and made it clear that he did mislead the country and his family."

Russert's question and Clinton's measured response, many have said, likely will benefit her campaign. Her standing with women voters so far has not been as favorable as anticipated, and many in post-debate interviews felt that Russert and Lazio were unfair, too tough and took advantage of a woman candidate. Clinton, incidentally, certainly appeared more confident and poised during the debate than she did on the '98 tape.

The theatrical phase of the debate came near the end of the hour-long session. Lazio held up what he said was a written contract that would ban the use of soft money and asked Clinton to sign it. Her response was that she would do so if he elicited promises from groups sending out letters and producing TV ads attacking her to stop their efforts.

Lazio dramatically left his podium, walked up to Clinton, waved the document in her face and said stridently: "Right here, right here. Sign it now." Many felt that Lazio's actions were rude and overbearing. Clinton advisers called it a stunt that backfired. It was an act to embarrass Clinton and he knew she would not agree to sign the document. NBC officials said Lazio violated an agreement the candidates made not to use props during the debate.

As respected columnist David Broder observed, the whole soft money issue had no true meaning. "It was 100 percent malarkey on both sides. Soft money goes to political parties, not individual candidates, and there's no way any candidate can shut down truly independent expenditures."

Soft money is supposed to pay only for party activities such as voter enrollment, but parties have found ways to help candidates by buying commercials. Can anyone truly believe that corporations and unions, barred from donating hard dollars in federal elections, give soft donations for any purpose other than aiding particular candidates' campaigns?

The Buffalo debate did show that Clinton copes well with tough questions and likely would do well in Senate debate. It also laid to rest Democratic hopes that Lazio was an easy opponent for the first lady. He did much better than I personally had anticipated, and except for his inexcusable behavior at debate's end, he handled himself well. He did not come off as inept. One political columnist, favorable to Lazio, seemed to express surprise that he put together good English sentences.

The polls indicate the debate neither changed the minds of many voters nor influenced many of the undecided. There are two more debates in October, and hopefully they will be more informational and influential.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.