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Rep. Rick Lazio unveiled pledges Wednesday from 13 outside groups to refrain from raising and spending controversial "soft money" to aid his U.S. Senate campaign if first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton does the same.
Clinton, appearing about an hour after Lazio at an Associated Press conference in Albany, pledged to match Lazio's move "if what he's offered is compatible with what I've been asking for months."
In a scene reminiscent of the Senate hopefuls' first televised debate last week in Buffalo when Lazio left his podium to ask Clinton to sign a pledge refusing soft money, Lazio waved pledge forms and letters in the air to the assembled journalists at the Desmond Hotel.
"Here they are," the Long Island Republican said. "Signed pledges from every group she named to stay out of this race if she closes her accounts, returns her unspent soft money donations, gets similar signatures from left wing groups to discontinue their involvement and stops running her soft-dollar ads."
He gave her three days.
Lazio promised to vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain's campaign finance reform bill if he's elected to the Senate.
Also Wednesday, the candidates took sharply different approaches in addressing their audience of journalists from around New York, but mostly upstate.
Lazio stressed broad-based tax cuts and education. Clinton emphasized her plan to help stimulate what she says is an upstate economy that continues to lag behind the nation's.
Lazio presented pledges to refrain from Senate campaign activity by the American Conservative Union, AmeriPAC, Citizens for a Sound Economy political action committee, Coalition for a Better America, Conservative Campaign Fund, Conservative Leadership PAC, Conservatives for Effective Leadership, ConserveAmerica, National Conservative Campaign Fund, the Republican National Committee, the Republican Leadership Council, RuffPAC and Save Our Senate.
The Republican Jewish Coalition's lawyer wrote that the group would not sign the pledge, because doing so would be "essentially "admitting' conduct in which it has not been and will not be engaged."
The Conservative Leadership PAC, which is behind an effort to raise $9 million to keep Clinton out of the Senate, said it has not and will not raise or spend soft money. Lazio said the state Republican and Conservative parties have also agreed to abide by the soft money ban.
Earlier Wednesday, Lazio made his first real campaign appearance with Gov. George Pataki. The two Republicans bought taco salads from Paquito's, a vendor parked outside the state Capitol, as dozens of GOP state employees waved Lazio signs on their lunch hour.
The Associated Press reported the appearance is expected to lead to a new television ad featuring Lazio and Pataki.
At the Desmond, Lazio said he was "proud of my record on issues like fighting for more affordable housing, protecting and preserving the Adirondacks and Long Island Sound, providing affordable treatment of breast and cervical cancer to low-income women and helping persons with disabilities get back to work."
Clinton has charged that Lazio voted in 1995 to gut environmental programs. And congressional Democrats have questioned Lazio's input on legislation for which he has taken credit.
What Lazio said
On education, Lazio said New Yorkers "want leaders who are not afraid to stand up to the entrenched interests and reform our educational system."
He and other Republicans charge Clinton is a captive of the politically powerful teacher unions in New York.
Lazio favors teacher competency testing and "opportunity scholarships." He said he backs a stronger effort to recruit and reward quality teachers. And he said he would support $97 billion more for education over the next 10 years, including increased spending for special education and school construction.
In response to questions, Lazio said:
Government should "speak out forcefully" for the use of "responsible discretion" in entertainment aimed at children, and "possibly stop partnering with any group not taking a responsible approach." But he was wary about too much government involvement in reining in Hollywood or the entertainment industry.
The "big difference" between him and Clinton on education is that she believes in national standard-setting while he believes that should be left up to local school boards and state governments.
What Clinton said
Clinton promised to make "improving the upstate economy my personal initiative."
She reiterated her support for targeted tax cuts to ease the cost of child care, college tuition and long-term care and for $3,000-per-employee tax credits to help small businesses in depressed areas hire new people.
She said she favors easing the "marriage penalty" for working couples and easing the estate tax - more modest versions of Republican positions.
She also said she would work to reduce New York's utility rates, which are second highest in the nation, and transportation costs, particularly air fares out of upstate airports.
She voiced support for initiatives to help high-tech businesses and business incubators.
She reiterated her backing of a federal law to allow New York to join the milk price-boosting Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. And she promised to fight to make federal agriculture formulas fairer to New York and to promote upstate tourism.
In response to questions, Clinton said:
She favors a ban on controversial late-term, or "partial birth," abortions as long as it's constitutional and "provides for the life and health of the mother."
Supports charter schools and "public school choice," although she said New York's charter school system is not the ideal.
Said she backed teacher testing in 1983, when her husband was governor of Arkansas, and "I was boycotted, criticized and condemned." But now she said she favors testing new teachers, while also backing smaller class sizes, federal funding for 100,000 new teachers, school construction bonds and incentives for attracting new teachers.
What's soft money?
Soft money consists of unregulated and unlimited donations to political committees that were intended for party-building activities but that have been used to run ads implicitly supporting or condemning candidates. The money comes "from sources who would otherwise be barred from making such contributions in connection with a federal election," says Common Cause. The group says the sources include corporations, labor unions and individuals who have reached their federal contribution limits.