Thanks to Pataki Reform, New York Ballot Rules Won’t Block Steve Forbes

It must drive Steve Forbes crazy (and that’s if you didn’t find the wealthy editor in chief-turned-free-spending Presidential Don Quixote a bit unhinged already). Here he is selling off shares in the family publishing business, trying to spend his way into a two-man race with Republican front-runner George W. Bush. And who is soaring past him in the polls? Senator John McCain, that holier-than-thou do-gooder from Arizona who gets all this attention because he’s peddling a best seller about his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

But in one of the stranger twists of this Presidential season, Mr. Forbes may finally get his wish to go head to head with Mr. Bush in the New York primary on March 7. The irony is Mr. Forbes has Gov. George Pataki, one of the Texas Governor’s biggest supporters, to thank for this lucky break.

Mr. Pataki and the entire state Republican Party may have sworn allegiance to Mr. Bush. But the Governor did Mr. Forbes a huge favor earlier this year when he signed an election law reform bill that eased some of the state’s notoriously cumbersome ballot access requirements. The new law virtually guarantees the millionaire publisher a place on the primary ballot. It also means many New Yorkers may go to the polls on March 7 and find they can’t pull the lever for Mr. McCain.

Bill Dal Col, Mr. Forbes’ national campaign manager, tried to sound as magnanimous as possible about his opponent’s misfortune. “It’s an advantage we’d rather not have,” he told The Observer . “We’d prefer to have everybody on the ballot. But it’s an advantage, sure.”

Basically, the new law reduced the number of signatures that Presidential hopefuls must collect to earn a place on the primary ballot. They used to have to gather names from 5 percent or 1,250, whichever is less, of all enrolled party members in each of the state’s 31 Congressional districts. Now they only have to gather 0.5 percent or 1,000 signatures to qualify.

But the Governor and his legislative allies didn’t get too carried away in their reformist zeal. Getting on the New York primary ballot remains a Herculean task. “It’s still one of the most difficult states,” said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access , a national election law newsletter. “In a sense, you have to organize 31 different petition drives.”

Mr. Bush won’t have any problem getting on the ballot. He can rely on the state Republican Party’s foot soldiers to gather his signatures. And the popular front-runner has the party’s veteran election-law specialists at his beck and call if his opponents try to disqualify his names.

Mr. Forbes won’t be hard pressed, either. He can afford to hire lawyers and pay campaign workers an hourly wage to gather signatures. In fact, Mr. Dal Col said the publishing mogul may only have to spend $750,000 of his dwindling fortune to get on the March 7 primary ballot. When Mr. Forbes ran for President in 1996, he invested $1 million on a signature collection in New York.

However, the new law won’t do much for underfunded candidates like Mr. McCain. The Senator is relying entirely on inexperienced volunteers to collect his signatures when the process begins on Nov. 30. Therefore, his aides fear he may not get on the ballot in all 31 districts. “That would be our goal, but it is a daunting goal,” said Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, the McCain campaign’s state chairman. “I would love to do it. I’m not sure that we can.”

What’s worse, Mr. McCain’s green campaign workers are likely to submit petitions riddled with misspelled names, wrong addresses and other errors. In the past, the state Republican Party’s able election lawyers have kept non-endorsed candidates off the ballot by invalidating entire petitions because of such mistakes.

Mr. Forbes has the resources to go to Federal court if there is an effort to keep him out of the race. Mr. McCain can’t make the same boast. “There will be mistakes made,” Mr. Molinari lamented. “The question is, will those mistakes be fatal?”

Mr. Forbes will probably be Mr. Bush’s only opponent in many Congressional districts, no matter what happens. And he may get his wish to go head to head with Mr. Bush if Mr. McCain is kept out of the race. “This will be probably the only state where that’s the case,” Mr. Dal Col said.

So Mr. Forbes plans to make the most of it. He doesn’t have any choice. In a recent Quinnipiac College poll, 56 percent of registered Republicans said they would vote for Mr. Bush in the primary. Mr. McCain was favored by 17 percent. Mr. Forbes came in a distant third with only 9 percent.

That could change in the coming weeks. Yet in the end, the conservative publisher may have to settle for a chance to influence the Texas governor by driving him to the right instead of letting him drift toward the mushy political center.

Robert Hornak, a Forbes delegate and president of the New York Young Republican Club, said the publisher’s impact could still be felt if he could force Mr. Bush to adopt some of his fiscal policies, including his call for a flat tax. “People like me are supporting Forbes because we want to see the Forbes message be the predominant message in the Republican primary,” Mr. Hornak said.

Michael McKeon, a spokesman for Mr. Pataki, declined to comment on whether the Governor thought Mr. McCain’s petitions should be challenged. “We want to see a good campaign in New York with the candidates laying out their issues and the voters making their choices,” Mr. McKeon said. “We believe that the choice ultimately will be George Bush.”

“I’m not sure this is something that is even up for discussion in our office,” said Mindy Tucker, a Bush campaign spokesman. “We are focused on getting Governor Bush’s name on the ballot, not on what other candidates are doing.”

However, it seems highly unlikely that Mr. McCain’s paperwork would go unscrutinized. Indeed, Jeff Buley, general counsel for the Republican State Committee, told The Observer that he would be examining both Mr. McCain and Mr. Forbes’ ballot petitions for the Bush campaign. “The Bush campaign has told us we are not automatically going to be going on an all-out offensive against these petitions,” he said. “But we will be looking at them.”

Actually, it would be a bit surprising if the party allowed either Mr. McCain and Mr. Forbes to descend on the state without some kind of election law challenge. After all, that’s the way the political game has been played for decades in New York Republican circles. It might send the wrong signal to the party leadership’s enemies. “Quite frankly,” said New York Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, “it would be like leaving your front door open at night and putting a sign out that says, ‘In case anybody wants to rob us, the door’s open, O.K.?'”

For years, the system has worked to the state party’s advantage. In 1988, the party bumped Mr. Dole off the ballot in a number of Congressional districts to help the elder George Bush, then the Vice President, take the state. But, of course, there were no hard feelings because eight years later, the party, led by former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, did the same for Mr. Dole. This time, Mr. Forbes and conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan were denied ballot access in a number of congressional districts. If that wasn’t bad enough, some Forbes campaign workers were mugged when they tried to collect signatures.

Then something unexpected happened. Mr. Forbes dragged the state party into Federal court. He got himself back on the ballot along with Mr. Buchanan. And the two of them got a tremendous amount of favorable publicity. “They ended up making Steve look like a victim and they ended up making Pat Buchanan look sympathetic, if you can believe that,” said Deroy Murdock, a libertarian columnist and communications consultant who is working with the Forbes campaign.

Editorialists as far away as Australia heaped scorn on the state G.O.P. machine. “In its heyday, Tammany Hall was a Democratic Party organization, controlling city and county politics in New York,” wrote a correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald . “Elections weren’t so much held as arranged. Such methods are being used, but by the Republican Party, in 1996. But Tammany Hall would have fixed it better.”

Mr. D’Amato was so shaken that he apologized-but only after the election was over and Mr. Dole walked away with all 93 of New York’s Republican delegates. “I was wrong,” he told reporters. “Some people were annoyed at the fact that at one point it did appear there would be no competition.”

As a result of this nightmarish public relations flap, Governor Pataki pushed through the recent election law reform bill. It may not do much for Mr. McCain. But Mr. Forbes can’t be too unhappy. “Look, if Forbes puts forth the effort he did last time,” Mr. Buley said, “he’s going to qualify easily with these new numbers.”

Perhaps the only thing Mr. Forbes should worry about now is the fallout that could occur if the state Republicans actually do try to keep Mr. McCain out of the race. The Senator may not have the money for a court battle. But his aides said any such effort to strong-arm Mr. McCain would seriously backfire.

“He is seen as a hero, this American hero,” said Georgette Mosbacher, Mr. McCain’s campaign co-chairman. “There will be people who say he has earned the right to allow people to vote for him because he put his life on the line for that freedom. So there could be a backlash.”

If that happens, Mr. Pataki might be forced to do something really dramatic: scrap the state’s onerous signature requirement altogether and simply ask candidates to pay a modest filing fee as many other states do. Imagine that!

Mr. Forbes would probably applaud. After all, it’s too late to change things for this election. Then again, the wealthy publisher might find himself at a disadvantage next time he campaigns for President in New York.