Pataki’s a Long Shot, But G.O.P. Delegates Want Him for Veep

A year and a half ago, New York Governor George Pataki was on the short list of potential Republican Presidential nominees. And why not? He had won two statewide races in New York (where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to three), was a formidable fund-raiser and was the kind of candidate who could soften the edges of a party that spent most of the 1990′s sharpening its fangs.

What a difference a year makes. The mention of Mr. Pataki’s name as a serious Vice Presidential candidate brought a chuckle to the lips of most of the dozen national Republican political strategists interviewed by The Observer –none of whom wanted to be identified for fear of offending Mr. Pataki. And they stuck to their anonymous guns even as the daily press was reporting a Pataki boomlet in the Vice Presidential speculation sweepstakes. Fueling the talk was a meeting between the two Georges–Presidential nominee-apparent George W. Bush and the New York Governor–in Newark, N.J., on July 14.

Crusty insiders who have seen these kind of ego massages before were not impressed. “The No. 1 reason to pick a Vice President is to help win a state,” said one party insider. “There is no chance that George W. Bush will win New York.”

“He’s been out of it for months!” said another, referring to the New York governor. “There’s just no buzz around him!”

“The idea that Mr. Pataki is a serious contender is crazy!” said a third. Most of the strategists were placing their bets on Governor Frank Keating–the “guy from Oklahoma,” as one consultant described him.

Even some of the Governor’s friends say Mr. Pataki himself isn’t holding out much hope.

But ….

“If you’d asked me two days ago, I would have thought the possibility [of a Pataki Vice Presidential nomination] was a joke,” said one Pataki adviser on July 14, just after Mr. Bush spoke at a Conservative Party fund-raiser at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in midtown. “Not any more.”

New York Republicans seem to agree. An informal Observer survey found that 28 New York delegates to the G.O.P. convention support Mr. Pataki for Vice President.

“It’s really kicked alive in the last few days,” confirmed Peter Johnson Jr., a major Pataki donor who has advised the Governor from time to time, and one of those around Mr. Pataki who now believe he is under serious consideration. “I’m hearing that it’s legitimate and real,” Mr. Johnson added. “I don’t think Mr. Bush has made any decisions, but I don’t think this is an effort to make George Pataki feel good. He’s too sophisticated for that–he would see through it in a minute.”

City Council member Thomas Ognibene of Queens, a Bush delegate to the G.O.P. convention, insisted that Mr. Pataki was the perfect choice because of his moderate image. “Especially in the swing states, voters would like to know that the party is trying to reach out and spread its wings, not moving further to the right,” he said.

There are reasons that Mr. Pataki’s name may be resurfacing. A Republican National Committee poll shows Mr. Bush only eight points behind Al Gore in New York, Republican sources say. Bear in mind that in 1996, New York gave Bill Clinton his largest single-state majority, and just a few months ago, polls were showing Mr. Gore with a 20-point lead in New York. Mr. Pataki’s presence on the national ticket could spell trouble for Mr. Gore, whose support seems soft even among Democratic voters in New York. “They’ll vote for [Mr. Gore], but it feels to me like it did in 1994–[Gov. Mario] Cuomo’s fourth time around,” said Democratic strategist George Arzt, referring to the year in which Mr. Pataki upset Mr. Cuomo. “There’s not the enthusiasm there.”

“Interestingly enough,” said a Republican strategist, “we’re in a situation where I don’t think Gore can take anything for granted, and that makes Bush more likely to look for somebody to put a large state in play that would normally be Gore’s. If Gore has to play in New York, he has serious allocation problems in terms of resources.”

The Bush campaign seems to be mulling this possibility as well. In the past week, a close Pataki friend, an attorney, has been vetting the Governor’s financial records, medical records and tax returns, and passing the information to the Bush campaign, Republican sources say. “I would consider this a deep level of background check,” said one knowledgeable Republican.

And Mr. Pataki may already have an advantage on this front. “No one has to undergo quite the political prostate exam you do in New York,” said a Republican source. “The Governor has already had 65 reporters look at his tax returns going back 20 years.”

Breakfast and Banter

The two governors had breakfast together in Mr. Bush’s hotel suite in Newark on July 14. They discussed the vice presidency, after Mr. Pataki had already gone through the preliminary steps of filling out a questionnaire and speaking to former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, who is heading up Mr. Bush’s Vice Presidential search team.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Pataki refused to comment on the meeting. “We don’t talk about any of those things,” said Zenia Mucha, Governor Pataki’s communications director. “The Governor said he wants to help Governor Bush become President and will work toward that goal.”

But Mr. Pataki was certainly sounding energized–and like a Vice Presidential candidate–at the Sheraton later in the day on July 14. In addressing the state’s Conservative Party, the Governor listed a number of Bush proposals–investing a portion of Social Security in the stock market, tax cuts, school vouchers–and ended each item by scoffing: “Al Gore believes it’s a risky scheme.”

As the crowd whooped it up, Mr. Pataki concluded: “Well, the choice has never been clearer. If you ask me, Al Gore believes freedom is a risky scheme! He doesn’t have confidence in the people! He doesn’t have confidence in what has made this country great. But Governor Bush does! For the last six years, I’ve been honored to call Governor Bush my colleague. In six months, we’re all going to be honored to call Governor Bush ‘Mr. President’!”

But what will we be calling Mr. Pataki? Michael Losquadro, a McCain delegate from Eastport, N.Y., thinks he knows: He saw great significance in the fact that delegates from Texas and New York have been invited to a jazz reception in Philadelphia on Aug. 2, the next-to-last night of the Republican convention. “Well, if they’re having this reception, I’m reading into this. Man, are they going to pick Pataki?” he said.

Okay, okay, you say, what about abortion? What about the party’s pro-life plank, and the aid that Pat Robertson gave Mr. Bush when the Texas governor almost lost it all in South Carolina during the primary season? Mr. Pataki is pro-choice; Mr. Bush is pro-life.

“There is zero chance Governor Pataki will be the Vice Presidential nominee,” former White House adviser Dick Morris has told The Observer . “He’s pro-choice!” And there are many Republicans who agree. But it’s not clear whether Mr. Bush is one of them.

On July 16, Mr. Bush told ABC-TV’s This Week he wasn’t ruling anyone in or out. “I’m going to pick somebody who can be President of the United States and somebody with whom I can get along.” Mr. Pataki certainly fits that bill–though the two Yale grads didn’t actually become friends until they both became governors in 1994.

“As Bush gets stronger,” said a Republican strategist, “Republicans have the possibility to choose someone more dramatic, someone who can really screw up the Democratic equation … and the one area where Gore has been able to gain some traction is on abortion.” The Supreme Court obliged the Gore campaign on that one last month, deciding by just one vote to overturn a Nebraska law outlawing the procedure opponents call “partial-birth abortion.”

“Governor Pataki is a middle-of-the-roader who’s pro-choice,” said political consultant Norman Adler, who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans. “He gives Bush a certain grouping within the party.”

And Mr. Bush has certainly been trying to broaden his appeal and his image in recent weeks. He spoke to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he proposed billions in education spending and he has otherwise rushed to the middle, where elections are won. A pick of Mr. Pataki would be consistent with Mr. Bush’s recent tack.

A Ridge Too Far?

But so would the choice of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, whose state certainly is up for grabs.

“Ridge has overplayed his hand,” said a Republican consultant who believes neither Mr. Pataki nor Mr. Ridge will get the nod. “He put out a CD-ROM with his bio on it. He put his name out there too much.”

“He’s yesterday’s flavor du jour ,” agreed another consultant who was not a Pataki partisan.

“Pataki could help Bush beyond New York,” argued one political consultant. “His image of inclusiveness would help in Oregon, Washington, California, Illinois, Michigan. There are a lot of reasons from cold political calculus why you would choose him.”

“He has a better story to tell,” added Mr. Johnson. “He’s a working-class guy, an ethnic, an environmentalist, anti-gun.”

All that may be true, but most practitioners and students of politics interviewed by The Observer still remained pretty dubious about the Pataki boomlet.

“A coalition built around the Northeast–that’s a Democratic strategy,” said Gerald Benjamin, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Maybe. But Mr. Pataki twice passed up the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate this year. Maybe he knows something the experts don’t.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Goldberg)

Patakimon 2000! Gotta Catch Them All!

New Yorkers were stars at the Republican National Convention in San Diego four years ago, a recognition of the party’s newfound power in this traditionally Democratic state. Jack Kemp, who represented western New York in Congress for two decades, was Bob Dole’s choice for Vice President. Staten Island Representative Susan Molinari gave the convention’s keynote address. Rookie Governor George Pataki got a prominent speaking role as thanks for beating liberal icon Mario Cuomo. Betsy McCaughey, Mr. Pataki’s Lieutenant Governor, could hardly keep up with media requests for interviews. U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato had been a longtime support and pal of Mr. Dole–the convention was filled with talk of a Cabinet post or some other big reward for Al. The state’s delegates were assigned accommodations at the swanky Hotel del Coronado, a far cry from the dingy converted nursing home where New York delegates had been warehoused in New Orleans in 1988. And the convention closed one night’s session with a rendition of “New York, New York.”

Four years after that shining moment in San Diego, with the G.O.P. convention just an Amtrak ride away in Philadelphia, New York’s importance seemed to be fading. The New York stars of 1996 were either out of office (Ms. Molinari, Mr. D’Amato, Mr. Kemp), out of the party (Ms. McCaughey) or simply out of it (Mr. Pataki).

Until, that is, just a few days ago, when Mr. Pataki’s name started popping up again as a serious contender for the Vice Presidential nomination. All of a sudden, New York’s 93-strong Republican delegation had reason to believe that they might yet get a chance to bask in the national limelight. The speed with which Mr. Pataki reappeared on the proverbial radar screen was evident during a five-day Observer survey of New York’s Republican delegates, conducted between July 14 and July 18. Asked their preference for the No. 2 spot on the party’s ticket, early respondents tended to be split fairly evenly among Mr. Pataki, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, Arizona Senator John McCain and retired General Colin Powell, with a trickle of support for other hopefuls.

As the days wore on, however, more and more New York delegates were mentioning Mr. Pataki as their first preference, a sure sign that media reports about the Governor’s re-emergence were having an effect. State Senator Joseph Bruno, who has had an uneasy relationship with the Governor, told The Observer that a Pataki Vice Presidential nomination would “make all kinds of sense.” He called the Governor a “broad-based Republican who represents what we’re projecting out as the new Republican Party.” By July 18, with 60 of the state’s 93 delegates checking in, 28 said they supported Mr. Pataki for Vice President, including party chairman William Powers. Eight chose Mr. McCain, and six sided with Mr. Ridge and Mr. Powell, respectively. The remaining votes were split among other contenders.

Georgette Mosbacher, one of the G.O.P.’s leading fund-raisers, said she believed Mr. Pataki is a “perfect example” of moderate Republicanism, but that she’d like to see Mr. Bush choose a woman as a running mate. “I’d like to see Elizabeth Dole,” she said. “Let’s face it, it would present a real problem for Al Gore in that there is no obvious Democratic woman as a running mate for Gore, and Gore is losing traction with women every day.”

Still, those who backed a two-George ticket came to the conclusion that Bush-Pataki would swamp Al Gore and his eventual running mate.

“Believe me,” said James Collins, a McCain delegate from Manhattan, “if George Pataki was named the Vice Presidential nominee, [New York Republicans] would pull out all the stops. It would probably be the biggest boon for the Republican Party in New York State in the past 30 years.”

Many delegates stressed the similarities between the nominee-apparent and Mr. Pataki. “Like George Bush, [Mr. Pataki] has been a good governor, a proven administrator,” said State Senator Nicholas Spano of Yonkers, a Bush delegate. Mr. Spano’s remarks called attention to an undiscussed but precedent-shattering development: Mr. Bush, a governor, is actively considering other governors for the Vice Presidency. An all-governor ticket is unheard of, at least in modern times. Historically, governors who win their party’s Presidential nomination feel obliged to look to Washington for a running mate. That’s why Bill Clinton chose Al Gore, Michael Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen, Ronald Reagan chose George Bush and Jimmy Carter chose Walter Mondale. Governors, by definition, are not part of the Beltway gang, and they are well advised to choose as their No. 2 somebody who knows that Sally Quinn ought to get frequent invitations to White House state dinners. And even then, of course, there are no guarantees.

A two-George ticket would challenge that bit of conventional wisdom, although when your name is George W. Bush, presumably you already have some help in the Washington social-graces department. Mr. Bush doesn’t need a white-haired senator to introduce him to the Washington establishment.

Even New York delegates who are pro-life and who support the party’s plank against abortion are not troubled by the possibility of Mr. Pataki, who is pro-choice, on the ticket. State Senator Thomas Libous of Binghamton said he had “absolutely no problem with a pro-choice Vice President.”

One New Yorker looking at big-idea issues is Long Island Representative Peter King, who is a nonvoting member of the delegation. He supports U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska for Vice President, citing the senator’s experience with foreign policy. “I think George Bush would admit that foreign policy is his one weakness,” said Mr. King, who originally supported Mr. Bush but threw his support behind Mr. McCain just in time to torture the Texan over his appearance at Bob Jones University.

Reporting by Jonathan Goldberg, Charles Forelle, Ted Diskant and Alex Riccobono.