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On eve of Buffalo visit, Clinton talks Trump, Lazio and 'What Happened'

Hillary Clinton almost seemed to anticipate the “Lazio question.”

She was, after all, headed to Buffalo and the Filling Station at Larkinville on Thursday afternoon to sign her new book, “What Happened.”

And Buffalo provided the backdrop for the first time an opponent “invaded her space” back in 2000 when she was  a candidate for the U.S. Senate. That’s when then-Rep. Rick Lazio walked across the WNED-TV stage and shoved toward her a “pledge” banning the use of soft money.

“Right here, right here,” the Long Island Republican demanded. “Sign it right now.”

So it seemed only right that The Buffalo News would query the 2016 Democratic candidate for president during a phone interview about that event 17 years ago. On page 136 of her newest publication, she describes a similar encounter with her last opponent — Donald Trump — now president of the United States.

In the fall of 2016 the two were locked in another contentious TV debate viewed across the nation, and once again Clinton encountered a hostile situation.

Hillary Clinton coming to Buffalo for book signing

“Now we were on a small stage, and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces,” she writes. “It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.

“Do you stay calm, keep smiling, and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space?

“Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say loudly and clearly ‘Back up, you creep, get away from me, I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.’ ”

Oh yeah, this happened before — in Buffalo all those years ago. Back then Clinton ignored Lazio. But because of Lazio, this time she was ready for Trump — ultimately deciding to hold off and again avoid the “angry woman” label.

“That’s exactly right,” she said during Tuesday's phone interview. ”It was the closest experience I had to call on.”

Attention galore has focused on Clinton’s crawling skin since her new book debuted a few days ago. “What Happened” has also garnered praise for its historical record of one of the weirdest elections in history, as well as barbs from some who say she blames her loss on everyone but herself.

But few have analyzed the Trump and Lazio similarities. Significantly, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News — who covered the 2000 debate in Buffalo — mentioned it on MSNBC. And the late Tim Russert, who moderated the Buffalo event, dissected it as a key point in the 2000 race (and ultimately Clinton’s career) in his book “Big Russ and Me.”

Now the woman who become senator from New York and secretary of state embraces the history. All along, she anticipated something similar.

“We did practice him stalking me and all that stuff because of what happened during the debate I had with Lazio in Buffalo. Absolutely,” she said. “How Lazio invaded my space and all that, and how I didn’t respond or say anything. If you remember, shortly after the debate a lot of the commenting was ‘Oh my gosh, he really dominated her and all that.’

“And then after 24 hours, it began to turn when people said: ‘That was inappropriate and what was he doing?’ That really had a major impact on how I thought about dealing with Trump. I wondered whether I had made the right choice in ignoring [Trump], because I was sure that I had made the right choice in ignoring Lazio, because it was so unusual.

“Because we live in a time of living in reality TV campaigns, I really did second-guess myself,” she added. “It was probably still the right thing to do, but it was still a more open question.”

Clinton delved into all of this in the book and on Tuesday because of what she views as a lingering “double standard” for women politicians.

“I want to do everything I can to diminish or eliminate that because it’s an almost impossible task to be yourself, but not cross some of the lines that drain or contain a woman’s behavior, her rhetoric, everything about her in the public eye,” she told The News.

Will that ever change?

“I hope so, but I am discouraged because I was shocked that someone with the record of my opponent – his behavior and the way he has talked about and treated women — would still get peoples’ votes,” she said. “There was a kind of collective shrug among many, and particularly folks who thought: ‘Oh, he won’t be that bad in the White House.’

“And yes, I think we had something of a wake-up call and hope that people will pay attention to what happened not just in my campaign but some of the debates that are playing out in Silicon Valley, in the media, all kinds of venues about the extra burden that women often carry when women speak up and carry a position of responsibility,” she added.

Clinton’s book looks forward, too. She unveils her “Onward Together” political committee she hopes will fund candidates and grass-roots causes. And like her husband, former President Bill Clinton, she plans to be active for New York Democrats.

“I really want to,” she said. “I want to be as active and supportive as I can, helpful, and in whatever way would be appropriate for specific candidates and causes.

“That’s why I’m speaking out on the book tour because I really want to be one of the voices that is proving an alternative — I would say realistic view — to some of the problems that are being posed by this administration,” she added.

And if anyone entertains for a moment the idea that Clinton’s “speaking out” days are over, they have not seen her on the book trail. On North Korea, for example, she agrees with the administration’s guarantees of defense for the Pacific allies of the United States, and thinks Defense Secretary James Mattis brings experience and stability to the effort.

“But I don’t think you do that in a 140-character tweet that basically calls people names and makes all kinds of bellicose statements,” she said. “I think it’s far smarter to be pushing a diplomatic effort to require that this administration actually listens to people who have experience and expertise in the region, who speak the languages, who know the history. I haven’t seen that happen yet. And I hope that it will.”

Clinton might get as worked up about Russian voting mischief and the administration’s “voter suppression” efforts as anything. The next Democratic candidate for president, she said, not only should but must address the problem. She also calls for an independent commission to recommend what to do.

“There’s not any support from this White House — in part, I suppose, because Trump thinks it helped him,” she said. “But any American, regardless of party, should be concerned.”

She will speak out in her new station in life; she will agitate against things like voter suppression — the subjects she deems important. For now, selling books tops her agenda.

She will draw the usual big crowd at Larkinville on Thursday. Just like that debate event at WNED-TV 17 years ago, her mere appearance constitutes a big deal. And a tone of genuine affection accompanies her anticipation of returning to Buffalo.

“I love that town. I love that part of the state,” she said. “I had such a great time being the senator, partly because it was fun going up there all the time. It was a day when you could actually get something done.”

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