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Buffalo held a pivotal debate 16 years ago

Former News publisher Stan Lipsey summoned the Politics Column to his fifth-floor office one morning in the summer of 2000 to unveil his “idea.”

“Let’s have a debate here in Buffalo,” he said, proposing The Buffalo News partner with Channels 2 and 17 and sponsor a face-off between the two candidates for U.S. Senate.

The Republican was Rick Lazio, the Long Island congressman eyeing the upper chamber. The Democrat was the most famous woman in the world – first lady Hillary Clinton.

It all comes to mind on the eve of Clinton’s next big debate. This time against Donald Trump for the presidency and this time in front of one of history’s largest television audiences.

But 16 years ago in Buffalo, the future presidential candidate received her first taste of a big-time debate. Back then, Lipsey recognized it would generate national interest, and signed up the late Tim Russert of NBC to moderate and Scott Levin of Channel 2 as a panelist. It was strongly suggested the author of the Politics Column would join the panel, too. He took the hint and did.

For weeks, the planners and participants prepared for the big event, slated for Sept. 13, 2000. As I walked over to WNED-TV studios that afternoon, its enormity began to unfold. Satellite trucks lined Lower Terrace. Police and Secret Service swarmed everywhere. Protesters chanted. And inside, Russert and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell sat at a long conference table planning what they knew would be a big deal.

Indeed, that night’s debate – viewed across New York and across the nation via MSNBC – turned out to be a very big deal. First, Russert confronted the first lady on her contention that her husband’s impeachment resulted from a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Then Lazio was asked if he really believed the Pataki administration’s claim that the upstate economy had “turned the corner.”

“I think my opponent would like people to believe that upstate is a vast economic wasteland. It is not,” he said. “In fact, there’s been great progress.”

The late Ralph Vanner, then vice chairman of the Erie County GOP, later confided he turned to Chairman Bob Davis and declared the response had just lost upstate and the election. In his book “Big Russ and Me,” Russert quoted his father – the late Tim Russert of Buffalo – as providing the most cogent analysis of all.

“The most important part of the debate was when Lazio was asked about the upstate economy and said it had ‘turned the corner,’ that great progress had been made,” Russert quoted his dad. “I’m sorry, but he doesn’t get it. We’re in trouble up here, and if he thinks we have turned the corner, he’s got a lot to learn.”

Davis recalls the third memorable event of the Clinton-Lazio encounter. The congressman produced a written contract that would ban the use of unregulated donations. Lazio left his lectern, walked to Clinton’s side of the stage, waved the paper in her face and repeatedly asked her to sign it.

“Right here, right here,” he said. “Sign it right now.”

Immediately, Davis recognized the move as a major misstep. Now he wonders what could happen on Monday. “Trump can’t afford to make a mistake like that,” Davis said. “He has to maintain control on Monday night.”

Levin of Channel 2 is also reminiscing, and is among those who believe Clinton benefited enormously from the Buffalo debate. The Lazio miscue, he said, could even resurrect on Monday night in some way, shape or form.

“It was one of those moments when a debate changes history,” Levin observed. “It could happen again with something she does, and it most definitely could with Trump.”

Clinton and Trump have compiled long careers bringing them to this pivotal point in history. Trump has notched his fair share of debates throughout the campaign and sparred with the media all his life. He will be ready.

Clinton will draw on her life, too – especially that seminal moment in Buffalo. It served as a key moment in her Senate campaign, and helped to set the biggest stage of all.


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