With the first presidential debate set for tonight, it’s important to recall that a Buffalo debate figured prominently in the career of one of the candidates – Hillary Clinton – and may have proved instrumental in bringing her to the point where she now participates on the presidential level.
The Buffalo debate between the Democratic and Republican candidates for a U.S. senate seat from New York took place Sep. 13, 2000, at the WNED studios. The first lady faced Republican Rep. Rick Lazio of Long Island, in the debate sponsored by The Buffalo News and WGRZ/Channel 2.
I was a panelist along with Scott Levin of Channel 2. Tim Russert of NBC News served as moderator. It was broadcast throughout New York State and nationally via MSNBC.
Several things stand out in my memory about the debate:
1. It was a big deal. I realized that while walking over to WNED and seeing a long line of satellite trucks parked outside. Protesters marched and chanted in front of the building. Secret Service stood guard over the first lady. More than 150 reporters from around the world descended upon Buffalo.
2. Russert got right to work by quizzing Clinton on her assertion that her husband at one time faced impeachment charges because of some “vast right wing conspiracy.”
"Would you now apologize for branding people as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy?" Russert asked.
As the closest person to the first lady that night in that studio, I still remember the emotional look that crossed her face.
"Tim, that was a very painful time for me, for my family, for the country," Clinton said. "Obviously, 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."
The result was that issue was now behind her.
3. Lazio responded to a question about the upstate economy in a way that appeared to fall in line with the GOP administration of then-Gov. George E. Pataki.
"I do think the upstate economy has turned the corner," he said. "I think my opponent would like people to believe that upstate is a vast economic wasteland. It is not. In fact, there's been great progress."
Clinton countered by suggesting her opponent is "orbiting another planet."
"I have now spent countless hours talking to parents who tell me with tears in their eyes that their children had to leave upstate, leave their hometown because there weren't jobs for them," she said.
One local GOP official told me at the time that he turned to a colleague at that moment and pronounced the race “over” for Lazio. Such a rosy view of the upstate economy, he said, would never fly with voters.
Russert later pinpointed the exchange as key in his book: “Big Russ and Me.”
4. The most memorable moment of the debate occurred when Lazio produced a written contract that would ban the use of soft money, or unregulated donations, and asked Clinton to sign it.
Clinton said she would only sign it if he got similar promises from the various interests sending out letters and producing TV ads attacking her.
At that point, 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."
"We'll shake on it," she responded.
Observers later complained that Lazio had “invaded her space.”
5. Though nobody crowned Clinton the winner of the debate, she proved she could at least hold her own on a major stage. On that score she was a winner, and indeed, won the election. The rest is history.