Minor Parties Pose Some Major Problems

New York seems to be heading toward a political train wreck involving five or six parties. In such a spectacular event, every major and minor ballot line would feature a different candidate, rather than one Democrat and one Republican cross-endorsed by one or more of the smaller parties. And the underlying cause may well be the disagreement over abortion rights that is causing havoc among Republicans everywhere.

Until recently, the impending Senatorial smashup seemed most likely to start with the Liberal Party, as that decrepit caboose of hacks is laughingly known. But the locomotive that suddenly seems to be careening fastest toward Mr. Giuliani’s candidacy-with no brakes-is the Conservative Party.

The Mayor’s antagonistic relationship with the party of the right dates back to his unsuccessful bid for City Hall in 1989, which Conservative state chairman Mike Long intentionally sabotaged. Not only did the Conservatives recruit Ronald Lauder as an alternative candidate, but they persuaded the cosmetics heir to pay for an expensive television campaign that emphasized Mr. Giuliani’s defects during the course of a rare Republican Mayoral primary.

Despite recent predictions that Mr. Long would capitulate to a Giuliani endorsement under pressure from Republican leaders, he and the Mayor are now locked in a staring contest over abortion. Although Mr. Long is not known as a rigidly ideological politician when jobs and other patronage may be at stake, he is usually less pliant than his Liberal Party colleague, Raymond Harding. Next to Mr. Harding, in fact, the Conservative leader seems as principled as Abraham Lincoln.

That could mean serious trouble for Mr. Giuliani. He is surely aware that no Republican has won a statewide election without the Conservative Party’s endorsement since 1974, when the late Senator Jacob Javits enjoyed what was destined to be his final victory. And in that race, Javits at least had the endorsement of the Liberal Party-which might hurt Mr. Giuliani more than it would help him next year, when he will need the votes of upstate Republicans and independents who are put off by Mr. Harding’s outfit.

On the matter of abortion, the Mayor is a liberal extremist as defined by the mainstream of his own party. It is a measure of their opportunism that self-proclaimed pro-life Republicans such as Senate majority leader Trent Lott are backing Mr. Giuliani, a candidate who is against outlawing the procedure known as “partial-birth abortion.” After all, those very same Republicans have cast their eyes heavenward and denounced the President for promoting barbarism whenever he has defended that procedure in recent years. But that position is perfectly acceptable when Mr. Giuliani espouses it, as long as it will help elect him, defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton and ensure Republican control of the Senate.

By contrast, Mr. Long appears to be more serious in his commitment to right-wing doctrine on abortion. Although he has not spoken with the Mayor since last August, the Conservative leader has delivered an ultimatum in recent interviews with reporters. “I don’t intend to lighten up” on the abortion issue, he told the Associated Press on Nov. 29, meaning that unless Mr. Giuliani shifts his position to the right, he can forget about the Conservative line next year.

In that same A.P. dispatch, Mr. Long’s ominous musings must have reminded the Mayor of their catastrophic tiff 10 years ago. “I have two candidates who have agreed to run and carry the banner on the Conservative Party line,” he warned, while refusing to name them.

Should Mr. Long ultimately surrender to Mr. Giuliani rather than vice versa, by the way, there is the matter of the Right-to-Life Party, which is exactly what it sounds like. Strongly anti-abortion Conservatives may seek refuge there if their own party nominates a pro-choice Mayor from sinful New York City.

What a mess for Mr. Giuliani. He is still leading Mrs. Clinton in the current polls, and almost every week she seems to find some way to help him stay ahead. Unless he finds some way to finesse this minor-party problem, however, he may become suddenly vulnerable to a Democratic offensive.

Were the Mayor a different kind of person, he might be able to imitate his new friend George W. Bush and just wink his way out of the crossfire. On divisive matters such as abortion, the Texas Governor sends a signal to both sides that they don’t need to worry about him. Mr. Bush assures Christian conservatives that although he must preserve his electability, his actions will speak louder than his mild campaign rhetoric. Then he soothes Republican moderates by saying he will impose no pro-life litmus test on Supreme Court candidates.

Lacking the Texan’s guile and charm, however, the Mayor must find his own solution. Maybe he can have Mr. Long arrested.