El-iot! Can Spitzer Go to 1600?

When Eliot Spitzer was growing up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, he and his two siblings played a somewhat unusual game at the dinner table.

“We had an assignment process,” said Bernard Spitzer, Eliot’s father, a real-estate developer. “We would go around the table, and one of the three children would be asked to raise a topic for discussion.”

Three decades later, the pressure is still on Eliot Spitzer, the State Attorney General who is an overwhelming favorite to win re-election to a second term next month.

“Would I like him to become President? Of course,” said the elder Mr. Spitzer. “I’d love to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

And would the Attorney General himself like to be President?

“I think he would,” the elder Mr. Spitzer said. “It’s his very nature.”

It’s in Mr. Spitzer’s nature to be ambitious-both for his office and for himself. He has transformed the Attorney General’s office from a sleepy patronage mill with little institutional power into the scourge of corrupt business leaders, producing headlines across the country. By using the Attorney General’s office to wage a one-man assault on Wall Street-he has launched investigations into Wall Street firms for misleading investors, targeted banks for predatory lending and gone after gun manufacturers for the proliferation of bullets-Mr. Spitzer is turning himself into the Tom Dewey of the 21st century.

Dewey used his success in busting rackets in the 1930′s to become a three-term Governor and launch two unsuccessful bids for President, in 1940 and 1948. Mr. Spitzer is no doubt hoping that his career follows a similar trajectory-although he’d clearly prefer not to be remembered for blowing an election, as Dewey did against Harry Truman in ’48. He won’t talk about it, but he is almost certainly running for Governor in 2006-provided, of course, that the current Democratic candidate, Carl McCall, loses to the incumbent, George Pataki-and his main selling point is likely to be his aggressive prosecution of Wall Street executives.

Parlaying prosecutorial success into political conquest is hardly new in New York. Dewey did it, as did Rudolph Giuliani, who busted mobsters and hauled Wall Streeters away in handcuffs before winning City Hall in 1993. The difference is that Mr. Spitzer, by riding the anti-corporate boomlet with astonishing success, has turned himself into a national story in just a few years. Fortune magazine dubbed him “The Enforcer” and put him on the cover in late summer. Publications in lands as far away as Singapore have been running profiles of him.

Mr. Spitzer’s paid consultants are already touting him for higher office. “There is no question that Eliot Spitzer is positioned to run for another office, because of the high profile of the cases he has taken on,” said former Bronx Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez, who advises Mr. Spitzer. “I think that there’s really not anyone else in state politics right now that is viewed as such a natural candidate.”

So how far does Mr. Spitzer hope to go?

“Let me just say this: In this business, as in so many, things can change enormously quickly,” Mr. Spitzer said in an interview at his downtown office. “And as someone who has seen that happen to people, the last thing I would let myself do is worry about things distant, down the road. If I focus on doing the job and continuing to do it effectively, then we’ll see what happens down the road.”

Laying the Groundwork

Despite the requisite denials, Mr. Spitzer is already laying the groundwork for a likely gubernatorial run in 2006. Although he’s leading by at least 40 points in the polls over his Republican opponent, Judge Dora Irizarry, he is using the race as an occasion to stockpile huge amounts of campaign cash. And he is using that cash to build up chits with the state Democratic Party. Two weeks ago, Mr. Spitzer wrote a check for $70,000 to the state party to help its slate of candidates, and handed the McCall campaign another $30,000.

His fund-raisers-who need to persuade donors that Mr. Spitzer needs money even though there’s little chance he’ll lose on Election Day-are not-so-subtly reminding big contributors that he will almost certainly be running for Governor in 2006, despite Mr. Spitzer’s vocal support for Mr. McCall.

“The fund-raisers say he’s going to be our candidate for Governor in 2006,” one major New York donor said. “It comes up-never directly, but it comes up.”

As part of his shadow campaign for Governor, Mr. Spitzer has been logging an extraordinary amount of political stops around the state, attending functions with whatever local county organization will let him through the door. And he’s not doing this because he’s sweating about Judge Irrizary. On a recent morning, Senator Hillary Clinton was the guest of honor at the Broome County Jefferson Day breakfast. When Mrs. Clinton swept into the room, surrounded by aides and bodyguards, the crowd began snapping pictures with their disposable cameras. Over in the corner, quietly eating eggs with the locals, was Mr. Spitzer. He’d already been there for an hour, and he acted as if he’d been doing it every day since he took office in 1998. Clearly, Mr. Spitzer is determined to do what both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Schumer did-get elected to statewide office (and not Attorney General, naturally) by spending huge amounts of time in traditionally Republican upstate New York.

Former Mayor Ed Koch, an early supporter, put it succinctly: “He’s running for Governor.”

Mr. Spitzer first began winning wide attention when he was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan under Robert Morgenthau. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, he won headlines by busting mobsters who had infiltrated the trucking industry. A 1992 New York Times Magazine story on his efforts featured what would become a standard in Mr. Spitzer’s repertoire: a picture of a tough-looking Eliot Spitzer, this time glaring at readers from the rear-view mirror of a garbage truck.

Two years later, Mr. Spitzer spent $4 million of his own money to run for Attorney General. He came in fourth in a field of four Democrats.

Mr.Spitzer learned a lesson that guides him to this day: “You’ve got to work hard in this business,” he said. “If you’re not exhausted, you’re doing something wrong. You gotta push, or things won’t happen.”

Mr. Spitzer started to push, and things started to happen. Preparing to run in 1998, he worked hard upstate, doing a ton of traveling and politicking in obscure counties. The work paid off when he won a resounding victory at the Democratic Rural Conference, an upstate convention of party leaders, putting him on the political map for good.

Mr. Spitzer’s image now is such that many political observers have forgotten just how vicious the 1998 race really was. In addition to running a fiercely negative campaign, Mr. Spitzer further infuriated his opponents by spreading his family wealth with abandon to win the support of upstate politicians. At the state party’s nominating convention, one of his opponents, Attorney General Oliver Koppell, spent most of his time stalking around the hall in a rage, barely restraining himself from assaulting Mr. Spitzer.

And in a remarkable moment just before Mr. Spitzer won the bitterly contested nomination, another opponent, Evan Davis, withdrew from the race and called a hasty press conference to denounce Mr. Spitzer for “buying the election.”

Mr. Spitzer wound up defeating incumbent Dennis Vacco in the general election, albeit after weeks of recounts.

Once in office, Mr. Spitzer immediately began making the most of his new post. He issued a blizzard of press releases detailing legal actions unprecedented in their scope and audacity. And if his activism wasn’t raising his profile fast enough, he quickly developed a penchant for headline-grabbing statements on a variety of issues.

Takes On Rudy

He called Mr. Giuliani a “dictator” for his unbending attitude on police brutality and compared him to Savonarola, the demagogic medieval monk who demanded that his fellow Florentines change their evil ways. (Mr. Spitzer wasn’t being original; the late Murray Kempton made the same comparison years before, noting, as he surely would, that the monk eventually was burned at the stake for committing heresy.) And in one startling outburst, as he addressed a forum hosted by the Reverend Al Sharpton, the highest-ranking attorney in New York State declared that the U.S. Supreme Court was “intellectually and morally bankrupt” because of its verdict in the 2000 Presidential recount.

“I think there’s a fine line between being impetuous and being forceful,” Mr. Spitzer said in the interview. “Hopefully, I fall on the right side of that line. But I hope I have a reputation for speaking my mind.”

That outspokenness has been put to good use-not only in distinguishing himself with the public, but within the Democratic Party as well. Earlier this year, for example, Mr. Spitzer set himself apart from the herd of party officials who endorsed Comptroller Carl McCall early in his primary contest against Andrew Cuomo. Mr. Spitzer not only endorsed the Comptroller, but attacked “fence-sitters” for letting down the party’s first-ever black gubernatorial nominee.

“He did a brilliant thing by getting out front with Carl McCall,” said Democratic consultant Richard Schrader. “He showed guts when a lot of Democrats were waiting to see how the race would turn out. It certainly helps him with party leaders who are supporting McCall, and it will also help him within the African-American community, a voting block that was crucial to him in 1998.”

Since taking office, Mr. Spitzer has also excelled at another indispensable political skill: raising money. His fund-raising has been as aggressive as his politicking. He has raised money from an impressive array of donors, drawing heavily on connections from his privileged background. Such was Mr. Spitzer’s unique position that his crackdown on Wall Street led to speculation that his campaign treasury would languish as he alienated friends.

Mr. Spitzer professes to be unconcerned. “You can’t think about that,” he said. “I’m sure there are many potential donors who may look at what I’ve done and say, ‘Gee, he’s hurt my company or industry.’ On the other hand, there are hopefully thousands of people who say, ‘You know, I’m going to vote for this guy because he stood up for what was right.’”

But the fact that Mr. Spitzer is now Wall Street’s most fearsome figure may not put a damper on his fund-raising at all. It may actually be helping. His opponents accuse him of taking money from law firms that are representing companies under investigation by his office.

Republicans are hoping to seize on Mr. Spitzer’s fund-raising to blemish his reputation as a moral crusader. Ms. Irizarry, his Republican opponent, recently sent out a press release pointing out that Mr. Spitzer has taken more than $10,000 in donations from lawyers representing Global Crossing since the Attorney General’s office announced that they were requesting information on the firm last spring.

“We don’t as a rule exclude lawyers representing clients with matters before the AG’s office from contributing to the campaign,” said Cindy Darrison, Mr. Spitzer’s campaign manager. ” Just about every law firm has some client matter before the office.”

Ms. Irizarry, in an interview with The Observer , also charged that Mr. Spitzer is headline-grabbing at the expense of his constituents, that he has failed to hire a sufficiently diverse staff, and that the Attorney General’s office during his term has focused on the wrong things. Not that anyone is listening, of course.

After all, Mr. Spitzer is almost certainly on his way to the most lopsided victory of all of this year’s statewide races, with the only real question being: What’s next?

“He wants to be Governor, for sure,” said City Council member Eric Gioia, who helped run Al Gore’s New York operation in 2000. “Any Governor of New York is automatically on the short list for President. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the back of his mind, he thinks that in 10 or 20 years the White House is a legitimate and obtainable goal.