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Lazio looks to tune in upstate issues Insists gubernatorial race will avoid lapses of 2000

What a difference time and a bruising political defeat have made on the outlook of Rick Lazio.

Nine years ago, in his losing U.S. Senate campaign to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lazio, a Republican, let large areas of traditionally reliable, GOP-dominated upstate slip from his fingers by running a campaign that both parties describe as ostrichlike in its approach to the region's economic problems.

While evidence of lack of population growth, business investment and job creation was everywhere, Lazio spread a theme of a new "optimism" in the upstate economy, of "great progress" and of an area that had "turned the corner" in its economic doldrums.

That strategy contributed mightily to dooming his campaign.

Now, as he is poised to formally announce Tuesday that he will run for governor next year, Lazio is not making the same mistake in his depiction, or the needs, of upstate.

"The upstate economy is really struggling," he said in an interview last week.

Upstate, Lazio said, is "ready for change" and needs a "bold overhaul" in state government now dominated by New York City Democrats who "do not have as much sensitivity as to what the upstaters are struggling with."

"People generally don't leave if they think you've got economic opportunities. I believe government is standing in the way of that opportunity," he said of upstate.

Detractors say Lazio merely is practicing the art of political expediency -- altering a failed past strategy to now tell people what they want to hear.

Lazio insists otherwise, saying he learned more from his loss nine years ago to Clinton than any of his previous six political campaigns, which included four successful congressional races in his former Suffolk County district on Long Island.

Today, he says that the state, especially upstate, is in more trouble than ever and Albany, in particular, needs a house cleaning.

"I believe upstaters do not want to hear platitudes. They do not want to hear political happy talk. They want to hear a plan. They want to know that they are high on the governor's agenda, that they can see the governor, that they can feel they are partners with the governor. And they're going to have that with me," he said.

Lazio, now 51, is taking a far different course than in 2000. He got into the Senate race late -- in June that year -- after then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani bowed out.

Today, Giuliani also is mulling a run for governor. But Lazio is leaping in ahead of any possible GOP contenders -- whether it be the well-known Giuliani or little-known Erie County Executive Chris Collins.

Lazio also says he won't be pushed out of the race if other Republicans decide to join him in taking on Gov. David A. Paterson or Andrew M. Cuomo, if the state attorney general decides to challenge Paterson.

Cuomo go a boost Saturday, with revelations that President Obama is calling on Paterson to step aside.

Lazio backers say he will not take upstate for granted this time. It is the base of the Republican Party, and a Republican candidate cannot win statewide without its backing.

Lazio and Clinton were tied in the polls in June 2000. But Clinton already had made a name for herself upstate by focusing much time and effort there. Soon after launching his campaign, however, Lazio began a series of what critics called bizarre characterizations of upstate.

In a debate in Buffalo, on the campaign trail and in ads, Lazio preferred to talk of the upstate success stories and rebuked Clinton -- who called the region's plight the campaign's most important issue -- for referring to upstate as an "economic wasteland."

Soon, the polls shifted away from Lazio. In the end, he lost, 55 percent to 43 percent. Lazio narrowly won in heavily Republican upstate -- 50 percent to Clinton's 47 percent. But Clinton won nine upstate counties, including a resounding victory in Erie County.

"Upstaters looked at what was happening in their communities, and Lazio basically was not talking to the issues that were affecting them, and that made it impossible for him to deliver any other message because he delivered a message that things were fine in upstate," said Edward Draves, a lobbyist who was Clinton's 2000 deputy campaign manager in charge of her upstate effort.

On the upstate stump, Lazio and his wife, with their preppy outfits and upbeat demeanor, looked more like antique hunters than people interested in voters' issues.

Clinton, meanwhile, already had held so many upstate town hall meetings and living room encounters that hard-core Republican counties were leaning her way.

True, her promise of 200,000 jobs for upstate has gone unfulfilled.

But instead of preaching a solution to upstate's decline, Lazio didn't even acknowledge the region's problems.

After his defeat, Lazio disappeared from the political scene, serving as president of an association of the nation's most influential financial institutions and now as a managing director at JP Morgan Asset Management.

He also is a statewide candidate again.

"He has to come back upstate and try to reintroduce himself after a not-stellar first time around," Draves said. But all those upstate-is-doing-OK statements from 2000 remain a problem.

"Those quotes are going to haunt him," Draves added.

Republicans are watching to see if Lazio retools his upstate approach.

"He needs to be aggressive upstate. It was a mistake the last time out when he suggested the upstate economy wasn't in as bad shape as it was. I think he recognizes that," said Joel A. Giambra, a lobbyist who was Erie County executive in 2000.

Lazio already is discussing issues on which Republicans say he must focus if he is to win any hearts and minds upstate: slowing property taxes and the rising costs of government, lowering energy costs and bringing new industries to stem population losses.

But many Democrats, and even some Republicans, are scratching their heads, wondering why the GOP can't field someone stronger than Lazio. A Marist College poll out last week found that 55 percent of voters think Lazio should not even run for governor and that Giuliani would pounce him, 83 percent to 13 percent, in a primary.

If the general election were held today, Cuomo would beat him, 71 percent to 21 percent.

But Paterson and Lazio were deadlocked with 43 percent each.

Lee Miringoff, the Marist pollster, said one thing is working in Lazio's favor.

"The public has a short memory on these things," he said of Lazio's 2000 campaign. "What he needs is to have matured as a political candidate so what he runs on this time is a more strategically focused campaign," he said.

Lazio promises "a dialogue with the people" instead of a "who said what" attack approach to his campaign.

Still, he has hired Arthur Finkelstein, a political assault dog whose clients have included everyone from former Gov. George E. Pataki to Jesse Helms and Richard M. Nixon. Lazio praised Finkelstein but said he learned from 2000 to "trust your instincts more" than advice of handlers.

"It's going to be my race and not anybody else's race," he said.

Lazio will start his campaign Tuesday in Albany, then head for Utica and Syracuse later in the day. Stops are scheduled Wednesday in Rochester and Buffalo.

He insisted he has learned his lessons about upstate.

"I think upstate needs to have more control over its future," he said. "It needs a partner in Albany that understands they are living under mandates and burdens that they can't export like some parts of downstate can."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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