If this year’s Governor’s race has failed to capture the public’s imagination thus far, it’s probably because a lot of people regard Governor George Pataki as almost unbeatable.
Polls show him with an approval rating of over 60 percent. He has a huge campaign treasury, and will not be reluctant to spend it all. Despite some grumbling, his Republican-Conservative base seems secure, and he’s working on getting support from the small but increasingly influential Independence Party. With solid support among traditionally Democratic constituencies like unions and Latinos, Mr. Pataki figures to win over plenty of Democrats, too.
In recent days, however, the sleepy campaign has gotten a good deal more interesting. In an apparent attempt to stir up interest in his candidacy, Democratic challenger Andrew Cuomo launched a kamikaze attack on Mr. Pataki’s role in the aftermath of Sept. 11, criticizing the Governor for allowing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to command center stage. Then, in an unrelated development, a ghost of elections past returned to haunt the Governor. Tom Golisano, a wealthy upstate businessman, has announced his candidacy for the Independence Party’s gubernatorial nomination. This will be his third attempt to win the Governor’s race or at least to influence its outcome. He is vowing to spend massive amounts of money to woo fiscal conservatives from the Pataki camp.
Suddenly, Mr. Pataki is looking less like an incumbent on cruise control, and more like a candidate in what could be a bitter re-election fight. Suddenly, it feels like a race.
“There’s been a remarkable feeling until now that Governor Pataki is unassailable,” said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. “With an economy that’s faltering and candidates coming at him from both right and left, it’s become clear that that is a misjudgment.”
Mr. Golisano’s entry into the race certainly has the potential to transform the campaign’s dynamics. Mr. Pataki has hitherto given New York Democrats fits as he moved to the political center, co-opting their positions on such bread-and-butter issues as labor, the environment and health care. With a fiscal disciplinarian hounding him from the right, however, Mr. Pataki will be harder-pressed to find a way to keep his new union friends happy without driving away the anti-tax conservatives who elected him to office in the first place.
In the past, Mr. Golisano was able to attract as much as 8 percent of the statewide vote by offering himself as the Independence Party’s small-government, social-moderate alternative to the major-party candidates. This time, he sees an opportunity to make inroads on two groups that supported Mr. Pataki in the past but that Mr. Golisano contends now feel abandoned: fiscal conservatives and upstaters.
Reached in Rochester at the corporate headquarters of his company, Paychex, Mr. Golisano said that he’s planning to make his announcement in early May, and he confirmed a report by the New York Post that he plans to spend around $20 million in his effort. And it’s not merely the allocation of resources that will make Mr. Golisano a player in this election: Unlike any of his past runs for office, he will be the first candidate to get a crack at beating Mr. Pataki when they face off in a primary contest for the Independence Party line.
“There are a number of issues where Mr. Pataki is extremely vulnerable,” said Mr. Golisano. “Do I have the means to take him on? Yes I do.”
The Democratic candidates will also be able to mount well-funded campaigns despite what will be a competitive primary, and they can only be helped if Mr. Golisano succeeds in taking a chunk of Mr. Pataki’s support. What’s more, they are showing an increasing willingness to challenge Mr. Pataki on issues that are his perceived strengths, including, in Mr. Cuomo’s case, the single biggest reason for the governor’s popularity: his performance after Sept. 11.
But here’s the catch: For this to become a truly riveting contest, the onus will be on Mr. Pataki’s would-be successors to show that they have what it takes to knock off a popular sitting Governor. And that’s going to take some work.
Take Mr. Cuomo. He’s the preferred candidate of likely Democratic voters, according to recent polls, yet he is widely disliked within the party organization, and he will not be able to count on unified support should he ultimately win the Democratic nomination. This is especially true as it applies to some of the most influential black and Latino leaders in the party, many of whom resent Mr. Cuomo’s challenge to his primary opponent, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who hopes to become the state’s first African-American Governor.
Mr. Cuomo thinks that he’ll be able to make do without much in the way of party infrastructure by playing the role of outsider and advertising himself directly to voters by drawing news coverage to his campaign. It was perhaps in pursuit of the latter strategy that Mr. Cuomo told reporters on April 17 that Mr. Pataki was a “not a leader” after the World Trade Center attack because he “held [Rudy Giuliani’s] coat.” The problem wasn’t so much what he said-other Democrats had made similar comments in the past without causing a stir-but the very personal way in which he said it, playing perfectly to type as the nasty self-promoter he’s often made out to be.
The Governor’s supporters have done little to dispel the impression that Mr. Cuomo possesses an almost involuntary impulse toward rudeness. “I think it’s just how he is,” said powerful Republican fund-raiser James Ortenzio. “He’d been boiling, just looking for something to grab onto, and it all came out in the form of this spontaneous explosion. Now, because of his ego, he can’t back away from it.”
Although some of his fellow Democrats have supported Mr. Cuomo-upstate Representative Maurice Hinchey, who is uncommitted in the primary, said that Mr. Cuomo “showed leadership by saying something about the Governor that a lot of people think is true”-many others have given voice to a more critical view. “The Governor had a specific role to play,” said U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens, a McCall supporter. “I don’t think Mr. Cuomo’s statement about the Governor was a fair statement at all.”
Mr. McCall, who is the candidate of consensus with the Democratic rank and file, no doubt is hoping that the backlash against Mr. Cuomo’s comments will give a boost to his own effort to challenge Mr. Pataki in November. The candidate himself has voiced mild disapproval of his opponent. The McCall campaign has been considerably more active, e-mailing a stream of news clips to reporters with headings such as ” Newsday editorial-Cuomo Super Brat” and ” Staten Island Advance -Cuomo Is Shameless.” But a side effect of the Cuomo outburst was to relegate Mr. McCall to the background, overshadowing, for example, an extremely positive show of support for Mr. McCall at a weekend gathering of Hispanic lawmakers in Albany and a string of party endorsements.
It’s all enough to drive some Democratic leaders to despair. “I’m not happy with the way the primary is going,” said Suffolk County Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, who is not supporting either candidate. “I think both sides have at times engaged in personal attacks on each other that aren’t going to help anyone except George Pataki. It isn’t going to help us as a party if there’s a rerun of the  Mayoral primary.”
Whatever lack of affection exists between the campaigns, one thing is certain: In the face of Mr. Pataki’s soaring approval ratings, there will be little choice for the Democrats but to stay on the attack against him. And so, even as Rudy Giuliani joined family members of Sept. 11 victims and the uniformed-services unions for press conferences to defend Mr. Pataki, both Mr. Cuomo and Mr. McCall were back out on the stump to talk about how the Governor was ruining New York. “Democrats had nothing to lose attacking him on this,” said one Democratic official. “If Pataki’s 70 percent approval ratings don’t start going away, then no one’s going to beat him.”
If Mr. Pataki’s backers are at all worried, they’re doing a highly convincing job of hiding it. “Right now, everything looks great for him,” said New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers president Fernando Mateo, who recently organized a fund-raiser for Mr. Pataki. “It looks like he really is unbeatable.”
As for the Democrats, they can only remain hopeful that the fight has just begun. “We’ve just seen a seismic shift towards an aggressive approach to Pataki,” said Democratic consultant Jefrey Pollock. “The campaigns were just nipping at his ankles before, and now at least they’re trying to take a chunk out of his leg. I think the Democrats realize that it’s going to take this kind of concerted approach from now to Election Day to take him down.”