Publicly, Gov. George Pataki’s aides shrug when they are asked about mounting criticism of the state Republican Party’s effort to keep Presidential hopeful John McCain off the primary ballot in nearly half of New York’s 31 Congressional districts. The Governor’s press secretary, Michael McKeon, said simply, “We want to see a good campaign with candidates who are working in New York.”
“If the candidates have support from Republican voters, there shouldn’t be any problem [complying with the rules],” Mr. McKeon said. “At the end of the day, a candidate has to make some effort. If people see they’ve made no effort in New York, people will see it for what it is.”
As the titular head of the state Republican Party, Mr. Pataki is the man who bears ultimate responsibility for the party’s widely criticized decision to use the state’s arcane election law as a means of blocking Mr. McCain. By employing a battery of election-law specialists, the state Republicans hope to deliver the state to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, whom Mr. Pataki endorsed late last year. It is not the first time the state Republicans have tried to keep Presidential candidates off the primary ballot, but this time, the level of criticism is unprecedented. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Representative Peter King of Long Island and former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato have attacked their party’s decision to try to block Mr. McCain from the ballot. The issue has become a staple on television political talk shows. And it’s driving Mr. Pataki’s friends crazy, because they’re afraid the Governor’s reputation is being soiled as his operatives perform Mr. Bush’s dirty work.
“The Governor is being asked to act stupidly by the Bush people, who clearly haven’t thought this through,” said one knowledgeable Republican source. “So now he looks really bad.”
“It’s so embarrassing,” said one friend of Mr. Pataki. “They [the state Republican Party] can be such blockheads.” One national Republican strategist summed up the concerns of Mr. Pataki’s friends when he said that Mr. Bush’s staff “has given Governor Pataki some very bad advice.”
Or perhaps they’ve offered very subtle hints about future rewards. “The only reason [Mr. Pataki] is doing this,” said one Republican who has worked on several Presidential campaigns, “is that people in Austin [Texas, where the Bush campaign is based] have whispered in the Governor’s ear that he is on the short list to be Vice President.”
A lawyer for the state Republican Party, Lawrence Mandelker, denied that Mr. Pataki and his operatives are carrying out Mr. Bush’s orders. “I don’t think support and loyalty to Bush has anything to do with it,” he said of the effort to keep Mr. McCain off the ballot. “We have reasonable rules, and everybody has to live by the rules.”
But one Republican operative disputed that interpretation, and insisted that Mr. Pataki’s image as a genial, moderate Republican will suffer. “Here’s an easy going, vox-pop-like guy getting [unwanted] national attention,” the operative said. “The public may forget about this, but The New York Times will remember, and the national media will remember. And there will be this vague aura of scandal surrounding this-that the Governor was somehow an enemy of democracy. It will be around, in the air. It won’t go away.”
To be sure, some Republicans argue that the controversy will fade quickly, as it did four years ago, when the party supported Bob Dole and tried to keep challengers Steve Forbes and Patrick Buchanan off the ballot. But more than half a dozen high-level Republicans-supporters of Mr. Bush and Mr. Pataki all-told The Observer they were embarrassed, for themselves and for the Governor. Mr. McCain, after all, is not Mr. Forbes (who spent $750,000 to get on this year’s ballot) or Mr. Buchanan.
The McCain campaign, for its part, seems to think that the party’s strategy has backfired. “Frankly, they’ve given us a good issue,” said Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, who is Mr. McCain’s New York chairman. “If you don’t have a lot of money, like Bush and Forbes do, you need an issue.” And Mr. Bush and the New York Republican organization handed one to Mr. McCain and Mr. Molinari.
There seems a good chance that the courts will decide that Mr. McCain should be on the ballot, but not before Governor Pataki and Governor Bush have endured what one Republican insider called “a public relations nightmare. They have totally, totally misread this,” he added. But Mr. Mandelker, the lawyer working for the state party, said that the Republicans have a duty to uphold. “I can tell you the state Republican Party is not concerned about the [negative press],” he said. “It’s only concerned about upholding the integrity of the primary.
A spokesman for the Bush campaign, Scott McClellan, had a one-word answer when asked of the campaign was concerned about the bad press: “No.”
Nevertheless, the ballot fight emerged as one of the four or five issues that the two leading Republican contenders discussed on the Sunday political shows two days before the New Hampshire primary. On CBS’s Face the Nation , Governor Bush was asked about Mr. McCain’s assertion that all he had to do to allow access to the New York ballot was to pick up the phone and call Governor Pataki.
“Listen,” Mr. Bush retorted, “all of us knew what the rules were to get on the ballot. The State of New York-like other states-has made the determination that it’s important to get petitions to get on the ballot … Now my position is that I was presented with the rules and our campaign lived by them. And now all of a sudden he wants to change them. And that’s up to the party of New York to make that determination, if they want to change the rules after two candidates have conformed to them.”
And so it went, on Fox News Sunday , on CNN’s Late Edition , on Crossfire , all across the TV band.
It’s unclear if the Bush forces had planned all along to challenge Mr. McCain’s petitions, but they were at least preparing to do so as of October. That’s when state Republican Party chairman William Powers sent out a memo on “Bush for President” letterhead, urging Mr. Bush’s coordinators around the state to analyze opponents’ petitions for minor errors and “report immediately back to the campaign. Decisions on legal action will then be made with your consultation.” And those decisions were made by some of the Republican Party’s top election-law experts, whose services only a well-financed campaign can afford.
When the time came to file petition signatures, Mr. McCain surprised everyone by filing signatures in 30 of the state’s 31 Congressional districts. Days later, the Bush campaign filed general objections, the precursor to petition challenges. Since then, the Bush campaign and the candidate himself have maintained that Mr. Powers and Mr. Pataki are calling the shots in New York-implying that they made the decision to challenge Mr. McCain’s petitions. Privately, Republican Party sources said a “consortium” of aides to Mr. Powers, Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bush is making the important strategic decisions in New York.
A Hero’s Welcome?
The question about whose idea it was to challenge Mr. McCain, and why, is important, because the issue has become a political hot potato, in part because of Mr. McCain’s stature. As Mr. Molinari put it, Mr. McCain “survived the North Vietnamese but can’t get on the ballot in New York?” And this year’s New York primary could be significant, much more so than in 1996, when Mr. Dole had the three-way contest sewn up by the time the New York Republicans went to the polls. Last time, Mr. D’Amato took the heat for trying to deny Mr. Forbes and Mr. Buchanan access to the ballot. This time, it’s Governor Pataki who is drawing the fire.
“I’m just amazed that he hasn’t picked up on what’s happening. He comes out as the bad guy,” Mr. Molinari said.