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Boost From Giuliani Lifts Cuomo Back Into Tight Contest : Politics: Polls show New York governor and GOP challenger are now in a dead heat. Number of undecided voters has grown.


NEW YORK — Three days after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani broke party ranks to endorse Gov. Mario M. Cuomo for reelection, the race in New York state has narrowed dramatically.

Two polls show a statistical dead heat between Cuomo and his Republican challenger, state Sen. George Pataki. Significantly, the number of undecided voters in both surveys has grown.

Giuliani's endorsement, plus the growing strength of B. Thomas Golisano, a Rochester, N.Y., businessman who is seeking the governorship as an Independence Fusion Party candidate, appear to have caught Pataki--the front-runner for months--in a political pincers.

Golisano, 52, the chairman of a national payroll company, has pledged to spend up to $10 million of his own money on his campaign. The polls show Golisano, who supported independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992, siphoning votes from Pataki.

"With Giuliani chipping away at Pataki downstate and Golisano chipping away upstate, the whole election becomes less well-defined and more uncertain than it was," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Public Opinion Poll, which now shows Pataki ahead of Cuomo by 1 percentage point, 37% to 36%, with Golisano at 8% and 17% undecided. A month ago, the group found Pataki leading Cuomo, 44% to 38%.

A New York Post/Fox 5 poll showed Pataki leading Cuomo 39.5% to 35.4%, with Golisano at 6.5% and the rest undecided.

The margin of error in both polls put the race effectively even.

"You have an unpopular incumbent and an unknown challenger," Miringoff said. "Neither has closed the sale."

Giuliani's backing of Cuomo gave the 62-year-old governor's reelection effort a psychological lift. But it is unclear how that will translate into votes, especially because the mayor subsequently has announced $800 million in new spending cuts, further reducing services, in order to balance New York City's budget.

Cuomo needs a strong turnout in New York City to offset pervasive weakness upstate. Polls show only that a third of voters statewide approve of his performance in office.

"On Election Day, they (Cuomo's advisers) will pray for rain north of the Bronx," said a political consultant who has run campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans. "It's a wild contest all over the place."

Wild may be an understatement. With plots and dark promises of revenge, the race could be scripted from the pages of a Gothic novel.

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who recruited Pataki, and other Republicans have threatened to field a candidate against Giuliani if the mayor runs again. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who polls show to be in an easy race for reelection against Republican Bernadette Castro, so far has refused to endorse Cuomo.

Moynihan is mad because the governor met during the Democratic State Convention with the Rev. Al Sharpton, a preacher and political activist who was then opposing Moynihan for the Democratic nomination. Moynihan crushed Sharpton in the Democratic primary in September.

Adding to the intrigue, real estate developer Abraham Hirschfeld is seeking retribution against Cuomo, who blocked Hirschfeld when he tried to run for lieutenant governor four years ago. Cuomo also opposed his bid to buy the New York Post. Hirschfeld is underwriting an ad campaign portraying a hellish version of New York--including a body bag, a chalk drawing of a corpse, rubble-strewn lots and "going out of business" signs.

"This is Mario Cuomo's New York," Hirschfeld's ads charge.

In an effort to portray Pataki as D'Amato's pawn, some Cuomo commercials show a newspaper photograph of the senator leading Pataki by the hand, with the tag line: "George Pataki? Maybe we should just call him Al."

Other Cuomo ads take the theme further, alleging that D'Amato has "treated government like his private preserve, dolling out contracts and favors to his cronies, fending off ethics charges and criminal probes."

"Now, D'Amato has tapped his pal George Pataki to be our governor. . . . Imagine what they'd do to us in Albany," these commercials conclude.

Seeking to capitalize on Cuomo's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, a Pataki commercial features a weeping mother whose son was murdered. "I blame it on Cuomo and his liberal policies," she says. "Cuomo does not care about the victims of crime. He cares about the criminal."

Another Pataki advertisement, resembling a video game, shows a seemingly endless list of taxes and fees that the Republican candidate charges Cuomo supported during his 12 years in office. The list almost spills off the screen. "Mario Cuomo . . . Too liberal for too long," is the tag line.

The differences between the two campaigns are stark. Recently, dueling fund-raising dinners were held within a block of each other in Manhattan.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman--who has become a star this fall helping fill Republican coffers after winning office with a platform stressing a 30% tax cut over three years--appeared with Pataki.

"This race, you see, is not about who can give the best speeches or collect the most endorsements from the political Establishment," she told party faithful as they dined on veal. "Democrats cannot resist spending other people's money. They're determined to try the taxpayer's patience. We know that the only way to control spending is to give government less to spend in the first place."

"We have largely missed out on the national recovery," said Pataki, a 49-year-old former mayor of Peekskill, N.Y.

Just a block away, in another ballroom with President Clinton present, Democrats dined on chicken.

"The magnificent heritage and achievement of progressive change is being threatened," Cuomo said. "There are forces that are threatening to drag us down into a ditch of diminished expectations. . . . What they would settle for is a puny, shriveled place, an America of naysayers and negativists."

"It is wrong for us to deny that heritage," the governor added. "That's why I'm running."

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