Big Bonanza for Betsy! Democrat Foes Girding for Massive Media Buy

How much money will Wilbur Ross Jr. spend to buy his wife the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor?

It’s a crude question, of course, but standing in the hot afternoon sun on Aug. 3, trying to divine the politics of the Bronx Puerto Rican Day parade, politicians agreed it’s the only question that counts.

“Vallone!” shouted one man with a megaphone, heralding City Council Speaker and would-be governor Peter Vallone.

” ¡Gobernador! ” shouted another.

If Mr. Ross spends a tremendous amount of money-$3 million, say-between now and Sept. 15, the date of the primary, these men probably will have shouted in vain. They represent the famously fading forces of traditional party politicking … as does the young woman on Rollerblades, weaving through the line of march so as to toss campaign literature on both sides of the street … and the Vallone posters wrapped around light poles … and, needless to say, the Tammany-redolent troika of Mr. Vallone; the chairman of the Democratic Party in Bronx County, Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez, and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who are waving Puerto Rican flags and marching, arm in arm, down the Grand Concourse.

It’s the sort of political picture we have seen many times before, but, because the bloodshed stage of the campaign has yet to arrive, it’s hard to know how we will look upon it later. Is this a snapshot of a slow but steady standard-bearer; the grown son of clubhouse Queens poised to plod, on a firm footing of cash, old-fashioned fieldwork, political chits, Yankee Stadium press hits and the die-hard-Democratic mindset of the electorate, to victory in September? Or could this be our last sighting of Mr. Vallone before he is swept away in a bright tide of television starring Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross?

In other words, how much money will Wilbur Ross Jr. spend to buy his wife the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor? Not that his wife isn’t working hard to get it for herself.

“This is not a typical campaign position where I have to criticize somebody else,” Ms. McCaughey Ross, earnest as ever, told The Observer . Standing on Park Row, outside the Weinstein & Holtzman hardware store, the Lieutenant Governor was holding a child’s bicycle helmet full of trigger locks, whose mandated use she advocated in several press conferences throughout the state on Aug. 3. Mr. Vallone’s City Council already had passed a requirement for trigger locks, albeit without making them free or rendering adults legally liable for children’s access to guns, but never mind. “I’m out to save the lives and health of children,” Ms. McCaughey Ross said.

Between the slogan simplicity of the line and the fact that Ms. McCaughey Ross looked The Observer straight in the eye as she said it, it was very like watching her, in full-face close-up, on television. No question, she’s quite a commercial: 30 seconds’ worth of glamour, brains and scorned-woman pique-and, better yet, 30 seconds’ worth of contradictions, which is to say, none. It is, of course, the contradictions that hurt Ms. McCaughey Ross. They give hope to her enemies, headaches to her friends, and endless fodder to the Fourth Estate. Not that they seem to bother her a bit. Recently, addressing the National Organization for Women, Ms. McCaughey Ross pronounced herself “really pissed!” at having been obliged, as a 1970 Vassar post-graduate, to hunt for jobs less lucrative than those offered to men. But she offered not even a narrative nod to the problem of reconciling this capital-f feminism with the vivid memory of her happily telling 1994 audiences, “George Pataki is the touchdown; I’m the extra point!”

Honor the Sabbeth

But why go back four years? In this very campaign, Ms. McCaughey Ross presents herself as the avatar of “a lot less politicking and a lot more problem-solving,” but she apparently solved one problem-that of getting Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, who will drag votes from Mr. Vallone, on the primary ballot-with the rather political approach of sending at least $87,000 in the direction of Stephen Sabbeth, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Nassau County: $25,000 of it to the Nassau Democratic Committee and $62,000 to Mr. Sabbeth’s club account.

“When people get involved with politics for the first time, they look at what they shouldn’t have spent money on, and this will be one of them,” said Assemblyman Scott Stringer of Manhattan’s West Side, who has endorsed Ms. McCaughey Ross but does not, apparently, share her faith that embattled county leaders can deliver a fortune in votes. For the Lieutenant Governor, though, the Sabbeth problem is not merely one of overpayment, but one of message-muddling: It undercuts the central, if dubious, theme of her candidacy, which is that she’s a sandbar of principle in a sea of political hacks.

Amid a Betsy blitz on television, that observation, and every observation like it, would shrink and fade and be drowned out. Absent such a blitz, however, and it all lives on, and gets louder. The less she puts herself in political advertising, the more Ms. McCaughey Ross throws herself at the mercy of political journalism, and therefore to the wolves. Not long ago, reporters on the Betsy beat contented themselves with combing through her record for, um, inconsistencies. Now, it’s time to search for reasons why the rocket ship Betsy, for all the hype that has been fueling it for months, has yet to take off. Like her or lump her, Ms. McCaughey Ross is the best-known, best-spoken, best-looking and supposedly best-financed candidate in the Democratic field. Hence, the mild jolt of the July 16 Quinnipiac College Poll, which showed her 11 points behind Mr. Vallone. Other, private polls have the two front-runners neck-and-neck, but the gist is clear: Mr. Vallone is just getting started, and Ms. McCaughey Ross has lost her early lead.

“I’ve done some extraordinary things,” said Mr. Vallone. The Observer was taking a Sunday ride with the Speaker in his two-detective, two-telephone, one-press-aide city car. He had made a stop in Queens, where he received the endorsement of the Rev. Floyd Flake; made a stop in Manhattan, where a Harlem congregation gave him a nice round of applause over Yankee Stadium; attempted to stop off in Brooklyn to mourn the death of Rabbi Leibish Lefkowitz of the Satmar Hasidic sect and, thwarted by traffic, turned Bronxward for the Puerto Rican Day parade. “Just because I didn’t ballyhoo myself about it and let others take the credit doesn’t mean I didn’t do it.”

Mr. Vallone mentions campaign finance reform and the Mayor David Dinkins-era “Safe Streets, Safe City” initiative. But even casting his record in the most flattering light, it’s hard to believe that the traction he is starting to feel can be explained by a growing sense that his achievements are extraordinary. The recent fights with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over Yankee Stadium and the city budget have informed people that he exists, and that he is someone they could warm up to. This is the sort of progress politicians often make as they become better known, although that does not automatically follow in the case of Ms. McCaughey Ross.

“To know her is not to like her,” said political consultant Jeff Plaut, whose firm, Global Strategy Group, is retained by the Vallone campaign, but whose underlying point is not in dispute: In her first independent run for office, Ms. McCaughey Ross has the naïveté of a novice, but the enemies of a veteran. If she is to have a chance, she must either pray that those enemies stay home, or minimize them as a proportion of the primary vote.

Then There’s Larocca

It’s still to be seen whether Ms. McCaughey Ross has been effective in courting the hard-core, primary-voting liberals who have never liked Mr. Vallone, but may warm up to James Larocca, the underdog candidate from Long Island. But given that it is fervently loyal partisans who tend to (a) distrust, if not despise, Ms. McCaughey Ross; (b) know, if not owe, Mr. Vallone; and (c) vote in primaries, the primary pool cannot be presumed friendly to Ms. McCaughey Ross. “She has to change the makeup of the electorate,” said a Democratic consultant familiar with the situation. “She has to get some people excited. This is still a winnable race for her, but she needs to get on the air.”

“I’m the only gubernatorial candidate who’s advertising on radio or television,” Ms. McCaughey Ross told The Observer , though her recent television buy was so minuscule as to be missed by all who blinked, and served to mystify all who didn’t. “And I’m quite confident that the media experts and political consultants who are handling those questions will make the right decisions.”

But it’s not the media experts or the political consultants who are handling the only question that counts.

How much money will Wilbur Ross Jr. spend to buy his wife the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor?

Stay tuned. Literally.