What has gotten into Rick Lazio?
The Republican designee and Conservative nominee for New York governor for a year has had trouble igniting his campaign in a big way even among Republicans. In recent months he's lost ground in the polls to Republican Carl Paladino whose tea party supporters petitioned him into a Sept. 14 primary. And Lazio's fundraising remains anemic — perhaps fatally so — compared to the far more popular Democratic candidate, Andrew Cuomo.
But in August, when candidates usually huddle in back rooms dialing for campaign dollars and voters are more interested in sunning than in who's running, Lazio has tried to go on a tear.
In the last couple weeks Lazio:
— Gained the endorsement of influential conservative Republican John Faso, who had backed Lazio's one-time rival Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive who switched from the Democratic Party to run for governor with the support of the state GOP chairman.
— Was among the earliest opponents of building a mosque near ground zero, testifying in a New York City hearing. Instead of the heated rhetoric of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, he called for transparency in who and what groups would fund the project.
— Countered Cuomo's polished TV ad over the Democrat's plan to clean up Albany's ethical behavior by showing Cuomo in a grainy, hand-held video attending a campaign fundraiser for Rep. Charles Rangel who faces serious ethics charges in the House.
— Drew some prominent attention in a statewide TV ad to run next week, this one funded by the state Conservative Party. It praises Lazio for "asking the right questions" about the mosque proposal that's unpopular among a slight majority of New York voters.
"We agree with what he's been doing and speaking out," said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, by far the longest serving party leader in New York and a powerful force among Republican voters.
"This is evidence that Rick Lazio is going to have all the resources he needs to defeat Andrew Cuomo in November from a broad base of support," said Lazio's campaign manager, Matt Walter.
Lazio as of Friday still only had $600,000 on hand after raising just $3 million in his entire campaign. Last month Cuomo reported that he had more than $23 million to use in the state with a nearly 2:1 enrollment advantage for Democrats. Paladino, a Buffalo developer, is also cutting into Republican and Conservative donors and still promises to use $10 million of his own cash to fund his campaign.
But Lazio knows about longshots. He stepped in for an ill Rudy Giuliani in 2000 to take on the Hillary Clinton juggernaut when the first lady made her historic run for U.S. Senate. He stumped and argued and fought perhaps the most important fight of the day for Republicans who saw Clinton as a future presidential candidate. Lazio sacrificed his longtime House seat and lost that Clinton fight.
But in the last couple of weeks, with a revised staff now headed by Walter, Lazio is out there stumping, arguing and fighting again. His schedule lately has been crammed much tighter, taking opportunities to hit media markets for free exposure on the way to and from editorial boards and GOP rallies, doing interviews that include TV networks on the mosque issue, local radio, low-cost teleconferences with thousands of party leaders, and Internet attack ads targeting Cuomo and his party.
Polls have so far shown voters like what Cuomo is saying and standing for much more. And they will hear that message far more often in his paid ads and appearances that Lazio will be unable to afford. As for the Republican primary, Paladino is drawing attention with his harder lines against the mosque, Cuomo and career politicians. And voters are listening in a year in which the electorate is enraged at politics as usual.
But in the last two weeks, Lazio is starting to get across his message. He's giving voters a real choice and, perhaps, the first truly competitive race for New York governor in more than a decade.
"I've run in seven campaigns and won six and I learned more from the losing race," Lazio said in September when he entered the campaign. "You learn from your setbacks. You are stronger and better able to deal with problems when you've been smacked around a bit."