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In N.Y. Senate Race, It's Battle of Pit Bulls

Politics: Raw language, derogatory charges characterize contest between incumbent D'Amato, Schumer. They're in dead heat.

October 23, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It is the most expensive Senate race in the nation, a tooth-and-growl contest between two political pit bulls marked by raw language and derogatory charges.

With the election less than two weeks away, most polls show New York's Republican incumbent senator, Alfonse M. D'Amato, in a statistical dead heat with Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer.

So far the campaign discourse has included such epithets as "liar," "bully," "sleaze" and a Yiddish description uttered by D'Amato that is most unflattering. But more about the disputed definition of that word later.

On Thursday, former Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo entered the fight on Schumer's side, charging that D'Amato's remark was divisive and that the senator "got caught" when he uttered it.

"It's a classic food fight," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Public Opinion poll.

Flailing Away in TV Commercials

In a flurry of television commercials, D'Amato and Schumer are flailing away at each other with attacks and countercharges.

The three-term senator seeks to paint his opponent as a Brooklyn liberal who "doesn't think upstate New York matters," has the worst attendance record of New York state's 31 congressmen and is soft on crime and child pornography.

Schumer, 47, has accused D'Amato of "lining his pockets" with $390,000 in fees for speeches from special interest groups and corporations with legislation pending before Congress, of distorting Schumer's record and of voting against education, Medicare and new police officers.

In a divide-and-conquer strategy, the 61-year-old D'Amato has played on regional prejudices. One commercial shows New York City being sawed off from the rest of the state as an announcer intones: "On election day, send Chuck Schumer a message. There's more to New York state than just Brooklyn."

Behind the Republican's strategy is basic electoral arithmetic.

To offset Schumer's expected strength in New York City, which generally contributes 29% of the vote, D'Amato must inspire his upstate base. Traditionally, about 45% of the vote comes from upstate, while 26% is from the suburbs.

For Schumer to win, strategists agree, he must build a large margin in New York City, hold his own in the suburbs and do well in such upstate urban centers as Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester. He also must win the votes of traditional Democratic constituencies, many of which D'Amato has diligently courted over the years.

D'Amato's attention to the problems of local voters has earned him the nickname "Sen. Pothole"--an image reinforced by commercials starting last year that portrayed him as a friend of the environment and a champion of women with breast cancer.

Equally, if not more important, to his winning the election may be his role in prodding Swiss bankers to pay $1.25 billion to settle lawsuits filed by Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

D'Amato, who is Roman Catholic, announced the agreement in front of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. One of his commercials features an elderly survivor emotionally thanking him. He hopes that many Jewish voters, who traditionally pull the Democratic lever, will think of him as mishpachah, extended family.

Rancor Over Holocaust Issues

The senator has accused Schumer of missing two congressional votes on Holocaust issues, which prompted Schumer to charge that D'Amato was trying to capitalize on the Holocaust for political purposes.

"It shows what kind of man he is," Schumer charged, noting that he and his wife had lost family members in the Holocaust.

The name-calling grew even more heated when D'Amato, in a private meeting with backers, called his opponent "a putzhead."

"Putz," former Mayor Edward I. Koch, a strong supporter of the senator, quickly noted, means "fool."

D'Amato, in a letter to Schumer, also defined the word as "fool."

It also has a definition, according to the book "The Joys of Yiddish," as "vulgar slang for 'penis.' "

Schumer previously had called D'Amato a "liar," a "bully" and "sleaze."

The senator--who has won the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization--also recently was honored by the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., founded by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1967 to improve the rundown neighborhood in Brooklyn where large numbers of minority homeowners live.

Such support for the incumbent, coupled with strong union backing, could be significant in a close election where advisors to both candidates agree that turnout will be the key.

D'Amato has raised more than $22 million, Schumer more than $13 million. More important, latest filings show the senator with $6.5 million still on hand and Schumer with $1.3 million, which raises the possibility of a cash crunch for the Democratic candidate. Some predictions are that the candidates could spend as much as $40 million by election day.

A Schumer victory would be particularly important to President Clinton, who wants to maintain enough of a Democratic presence in the Senate to prevent Republicans from overriding his vetoes--or impeaching him--on party-line votes. Two-thirds majorities are needed. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in the chamber, 55 to 45.

When the president visited New York and raised $1 million for Schumer recently, he praised him as a "visionary, an activist, a doer." But Schumer was not at the fund-raiser. His wife stood by Clinton while he went to Washington to be available for congressional votes.

His absence prompted New York newspapers to note that D'Amato's attacks on his attendance record certainly were getting his attention.

As the campaign enters its final stages, politicians on both sides agree on one thing: The race is not going to get any nicer.

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