Can Carl Soar? McCall’s Camp Suddenly High

After a week of campaigning in which he came under heavy attack from the campaign of his Republican opponent, Carl McCall seems happy, at the very least, about one thing: he is no longer being ignored.

“I don’t know if George Pataki is desperate or just a little bit scared,” he told The Observer , “but he’s certainly paying more attention to this campaign. I think now he sees this campaign as a real threat.”

It is now impossible to dismiss Carl McCall. His crushing victory over a younger and more ruthless opponent went some way towards dispelling the notion that he lacked the energy and desire to be competitive in a nationally-watched race against a well-funded and popular incumbent. He is gaining attention and financial support from the national Democratic Party. He was feted as a hero over the weekend at the dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he enjoys a huge Democratic registration advantage going into the general election. Perhaps best of all, the work of attacking Mr. Pataki is being made easier by a driven Pataki nemesis with bottomless pockets, Independence Party nominee Tom Golisano.

By any measure, Mr. McCall has a shot. The question now is whether he has the political skill and dexterity to capitalize on his good fortune.

Judging by Mr. McCall’s first week of general-election campaigning, in which he appeared with an array of Democrats at City Hall, barnstormed across upstate New York and mingled with the Democratic elite in Washington, D.C., it could go either way. There were ups and downs: During an interview with an upstate radio station, a local talk jock began a question as follows: “You are a man of great appeal, who can get the votes of Republicans upstate…”

But then there was the event at which Mr. McCall spoke to a few dozen people in a cavernous airport hanger so bereft of supporters that every time he yelled out a line, the reverberations threatened to deafen his listeners.

Mr. McCall’s string of successes in this race have told the electorate little of his abilities as a campaigner. He has been buoyed in large part by external factors – whatever skills he has as a politician have been almost beside the point. His primary opponent, Andrew Cuomo, self-destructed as he stood by and watched. As the first serious black contender for governor in New York history, he has become an icon for minorities and liberals across the country almost in spite of himself; he painstakingly avoids discussion of race as a factor in the contest. And Mr. Golisano spent his way to victory in a minor-party primary over the Governor, ensuring his continued presence in the race and, in the process, bringing Mr. Pataki’s post-Sept. 11 approval ratings down to Earth.

But now, Mr. McCall is facing the toughest test of his political career. Does Mr. McCall, a steady but unspectacular public performer, have what it takes to close the gap? He is up against an opponent who has nearly ten times as much campaign cash on hand, who has made substantial incursions into traditionally Democratic territory and who remains popular for his performance after Sept. 11. It will likely take a brilliant performance from now until the election to convince voters to make a change.

During a showy one-day campaign swing through four upstate cities on a chartered 727, Mr. McCall ploughed gamely through a series of old-fashioned rallies. “I will not rest!” was his cry from the first stop of the day, a half-empty hotel ballroom in Buffalo, to the last, the steps of the statehouse in Albany.

The results were mixed. At the first three events, in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, Mr. McCall and his fellow travelers, including Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, state party Chairman Denny Farrell and Lt. Gov. candidate Dennis Mehiel, addressed anemic crowds and struggled, with little success, to hold the attention of the traveling members of the press.

There was actually a palpable sense of relief from Mr. McCall’s staff after the last event of the day in Albany, at which a livelier crowd inspired Mr. McCall to launch into a spirited and throaty ad-libbed sermon about providing a “beacon of hope” from his office in the statehouse. “I wish I could find out what he drank between Syracuse and Albany so we could bottle it for the next 53 days,” said an one staffer on the plane ride home.

But there were also unalloyed signs of Mr. McCall’s potency as a candidate. At one point, for example, he interupted his scheduled events to record the Democratic response to that week’s radio address by President George Bush. The honor, of largely symbolic value, was bestowed upon him on short notice by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who simultaneously informed Mr. McCall that the DNC would be kicking in a significant sum of money to his campaign.

The campaign had announced earlier that day that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would be contributing the maximum legal amount to the effort from her political action committee, HILLPAC.

Mr. McCall also found support in other, unplanned places. “You are the man, Carl McCall,” shouted one well-wisher on a street in Rochester. “I’m going to get everyone I know to vote for you in November!”

But that positive attention is a far cry from the sort that Mr. McCall has been getting as of late from the Pataki campaign. Unlike the last gubernatorial race, in which Mr. Pataki barely acknowledged his opponent in coasting to a comfortable victory over Democrat Peter Vallone, the governor’s campaign has aggressively tried to kill Mr. McCall’s momentum in its infancy. The Pataki forces have reacted with particular strength to Mr. McCall’s assaults on the governor’s record on education.

At each campaign stop upstate, a local Republican materialized to hand out press releases detailing comments Mr. McCall had made in Feb. 2000 in which he said that some upstate areas might have to receive a lesser share of funding for the state’s public schools. Almost daily since the primary, the Pataki campaign has issued statements savaging Mr. McCall’s record. And Mr. Pataki’s running mate, Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue, has been touring the state to tell anyone who will listen that Mr. McCall did a rotten job as Comptroller and at his previous job, president of the New York City Board of Education.

Mr. McCall’s campaign, which has less money and has just emerged from a primary contest, will be hard-pressed to trade blows with the Pataki campaign. This will be especially true once the negative ads hit the airwaves.

Pataki advisers dismiss the idea that Mr. McCall represents a threat. “There doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back up the contention that he’s got anything going on, other than what you’d expect,” said Pataki campaign spokesman Mike McKeon. “We understand you don’t take anything for granted in a five-to-three [registration] Democratic state, but people know the Governor and like the Governor. They don’t know Carl McCall.”

Privately, Mr. Pataki’s closest supporters are now hinting darkly that when they do get to know Carl McCall, they won’t like what they see. “When people go into the attic and the basement of Carl McCall’s political life, they’re going to find a whole bunch of skeletons,” said one top supporter.

For now, Mr. McCall can only hope for the best. After a brief stump stop at a union hall in Rochester, Mr. McCall was practically accosted in the parking lot by some elderly women who had attended the rally.

“We love you Carl,” one of them said.

“How are you doing?” asked another.

“I’m doing alright,” answered the Comptroller. “I’m taking care of myself. Just pray for me.