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It's official. In the nation's most-watched senatorial race, Rep. Rick Lazio has accomplished something many observers thought was nearly impossible. He has helped to make his opponent, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, look good.

As an educational experience, the first campaign to feature a first lady as a candidate is like a Hallmark card. It just keeps on giving.

As Lazio has slipped behind Clinton following the first of three scheduled debates, this most unusual campaign gives us an illustration of how men and women can look at the same event and come away with very different impressions.

In the evening's most memorable exchange, the Long Island Republican marched over to her podium, waving a pledge to stop spending "soft money," the unlimited contributions given to political parties. Like a daddy trying to get a child to eat her broccoli, he nagged, "Sign it. Sign it right now! Sign it!"

Lazio actually had a legitimate point to make about the excessive amounts of soft money spent by parties in campaigns. Clinton also had a legitimate counterpoint about the excessive amounts of money independent outside groups have been spending on Lazio's behalf with ads that pillory Hillary. But in politics, as in other places where one wants to win friends and influence people, what you say is no more important than how you say it. Lazio looked like a bully, Clinton looked like a victim, which, experience shows, almost always plays well for Clinton.

Lazio probably was reacting to complaints from some of his own supporters that his campaign has been too laid-back and ineffectual when he decided to show how tough he could be during his Buffalo debate. But his toughness, in this instance, apparently backfired. Partly as a result of this interplay, two statewide polls showed Lazio lost likability while Clinton gained.

His unfavorable rating climbed to 38 percent in a poll by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion, compared to 32 percent the day before the debate. For the first time, he was approaching Clinton's unfavorable rating of 42 percent, which is about where she has hovered all year in the state.

A New York Times/CBS News poll reported even better news for the first lady, giving her her biggest lead over Lazio yet - 48 percent to 39 percent among likely voters.

Many women I talked to came away feeling the way 7-year-old Victoria Fagan did during a visit Lazio paid to her charter school in Rochester the next day.

"Were you fighting with Mrs. Clinton?" she asked Lazio, within earshot of reporters. "Fighting is not good."

That's what we all learn as children. We also learn as little boys that it is not good to fight with girls.

Yet we also have learned as we have grown from boys into men that women want to be "equal." What a revolting development that is for Lazio supporters, whose frustration was quite apparent as the negative feedback rolled in.

"Lazio treats her as an equal, and now everyone suddenly complains that he was too hard on her," Michael Long, chairman of the state's Conservative Party, which has endorsed Lazio, remarked to the New York Observer.

Hey, guys, let me give a you a little tip about women: They like to be listened to. Most people like to be listened to. But nobody likes to be listened to more than the members of groups that historically have had a tough time getting heard.

If you want to win the members of such groups over, remember that it's not how you define equality that counts. It is how they define it.

Would Lazio have treated a male candidate in such a hyper-aggressive way? We'll never know. But we do know, in hindsight, how he could have handled the situation better. Former Sen. Bill Bradley showed us during his debate with Vice President Al Gore in Harlem during the last primary season.

When Bradley held out a piece of paper for Gore to sign, the ex-basketball star remained behind his podium as he held the paper out toward Gore.

Bradley got his photo op without invading Gore's space and looking unpresidential. Lazio, alas, did not look senatorial. He might get away with such antics in the boisterous House, but not in the sober Senate. Instead of looking stately, he looked like a know-it-all teenager talking back to his mother.

If you want to win votes, you should talk with people, not at them. Take it from me. Like most men who have been married more than once, I feel like an expert.

Chicago Tribune

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