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McCall's Uphill Fight for N.Y. Governor Falters

Democrat's campaign is going nowhere, polls show. He's short on money and is up against a skillful foe in Pataki.

November 01, 2002|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- H. Carl McCall, the Democratic candidate for governor, stands outside Pennsylvania Station as darkness approaches, trying to shake hands with a crush of commuters who largely ignore him as they race for trains.

"Nice to see you. Thank you very much," McCall manages to tell those pausing for a handshake. Often, he barely gets the words out before the person has disappeared.

The rush past McCall is an apt metaphor for a campaign perceived as so moribund that pollsters and political advisors already have begun post-mortems.

In the Empire State, where there are 2 million more Democrats than Republicans, McCall trails two-term Gov. George Pataki by as much as 20 points in some polls.

Outspent massively and just about out of money, he faces an incumbent who has skillfully used the power of the governor's office to co-opt traditional Democratic themes and constituencies.

"People generally think Pataki has done a good job and most people think the state is headed in the right direction and those are two things that work well for incumbents," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "The competition hasn't been able to lay a glove on him."

Just one statistic from the latest Marist poll shows the uphill fight faced by McCall, the state's comptroller, who is seeking to become New York's first African American governor: Regardless of whom voters support, 83% of those interviewed said they believed Pataki would be reelected.

The governor's race could become the most expensive non-presidential contest in the nation's history.

So far, the candidates have spent more than $118 million, with Tom Golisano, a billionaire businessman running on the Independence Party line, laying out more than $54 million -- mostly his own money. Pataki has spent more than $39 million; McCall, more than $14 million.

Andrew Cuomo, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, spent more than $11 million before dropping out of the Democratic primary, ensuring McCall would be the standard-bearer.

"Andrew's timing kind of devalued getting the nomination," said David Garth, a veteran campaign consultant.

The result: McCall entered the general election lacking necessary momentum for fund-raising.

Just when polls showed the race narrowing, it was revealed that McCall had written letters on the comptroller's stationery to companies in which the state held stock asking for jobs for family members. The revelation damaged his campaign.

The 67-year-old McCall -- who courted voters with themes of improving education and the economy, providing quality health care and affordable housing -- found the governor had seized those issues long before the election and had used them effectively to woo traditional Democratic support.

Symbolic of Pataki's success was the endorsement of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, representing 208,000 health-care workers. For the first time in 40 years, the union backed a Republican after legislation favorable to the union won the governor's approval.

"Pataki deftly moved to the center of the political spectrum and is generally seen as a moderate by voters, and that's where most of the voters are," Miringoff said.

Polls show that Pataki, 57, has made inroads into traditionally Democratic New York City, cut his losses upstate, where Golisano remains his chief challenger, and is running strongly in New York City's suburbs.

Poll numbers also show Golisano has not harmed Pataki as much as McCall's strategists hoped he would. The Independence Party candidate draws as much support from McCall as from the governor.

There is also the Giuliani factor. Eight years ago, when he was New York mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani backed Democrat Mario M. Cuomo in the gubernatorial election.

After winning, Pataki was so angry he refused to talk to Giuliani for weeks. For a time, the mayor was a GOP pariah. These days, he is a highly popular figure in the Republican Party, and his endorsement of Michael R. Bloomberg was a key to the mayor's election.

After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Pataki and Giuliani worked closely together, and their friendship solidified.

Giuliani has campaigned alongside Pataki and has made commercials for the governor.

"He really is a terrific human being," the former mayor tells voters.

Former President Clinton has made a TV spot praising McCall. But funds are so sparse, it has barely been shown.

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