Manning Talks Big But Can Look Small

Patrick Manning is what New Yorkers, in an earlier era, used to call a “big palooka.”

With his 6-foot, 11-inch frame stretched out over the chair of a midtown restaurant, the 40-year-old Dutchess County Assemblyman—a contender for the Republican gubernatorial nod—is one huge, handsome hunk of horseflesh, a real thrill for a handicapper in high heels, such as this columnist. What’s more, he displays an outsized ambition and a disposition that matches his height.

Mr. Manning makes much of his stature: He advertises himself as “the tallest elected official in the country” and named his reform effort “Stand Tall New York.”

But you have to wonder whether his political savvy has caught up with his impressive physique. Since declaring his candidacy last month, Mr. Manning has almost single-handedly revived an old-fashioned Irish pugilism in New York G.O.P. politics, with a nasty right hook that his foes find over the top—and even below the belt.

It’s not so much that at a Jan. 21 Republican gathering in Syracuse, he labeled Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Eliot Spitzer a “thug” and a “bully.” That’s by now a standard G.O.P. lash, first launched by state chairman Stephen Minarik after Mr. Spitzer’s alleged recent “threats” to mess with Wall Street titan John Whitehead.

Nope. It’s that Mr. Manning, a self-styled Reagan Republican, violates Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Never speak ill of a fellow Republican.”

At the press conference announcing his candidacy, Mr. Manning went after Governor George Pataki, castigating his administration for spending too much and giving away too much to special interests during the past 12 years.

Meeting with Wise Guys recently, Mr. Manning backpedaled, saying his jibes were “not necessarily a criticism of the Governor, but of those who think that in order for the Republican Party to win, we have to be Democrat lite.” In truth, he only dug himself a deeper hole: Who are the folks who argue for such fiscal profligacy? Various “consultants” and “pundits,” he said. He declined to name them, but the rest of us know them as Mr. Pataki’s supporters and henchmen.

At the Syracuse meeting, Mr. Manning also heaped scorn on William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor, in an attack that he repeated for Wise Guys.

“If you’re looking for a candidate with blue blood and a pedigree from Wall Street, look elsewhere. My blood is red, and I come from Main Street,” he said. He called Mr. Weld “80 percent of Eliot Spitzer,” arguing the strategic point that running a social liberal like Mr. Weld would “suppress” turnout among the conservative upstate Republican base. (Note to Mr. Manning’s handlers: This is why most pros don’t let their candidates talk strategy. Yes, many have noted that Mr. Weld is wealthy, WASP-y and liberal, but pointing out those characteristics doesn’t get to the crux of why his positions might be wrong for New York.)

Mr. Manning reserved his most cutting remark, however, for a candidate who, like him, is positioned as a fiscal and social conservative: John Faso, a former Assembly Minority Leader who until recently was working as a lobbyist, helping the state, among other things, with transportation matters in Washington. “In the era of Jack Abramoff, is the standard-bearer of our party going to be a registered lobbyist?” Mr. Manning asked.

That’s tarring with a broad brush, like saying the G.O.P. shouldn’t nominate a businessman for office because of the sins of Kenneth Lay or Dennis Kozlowski. Mr. Manning qualified his remark by saying that he feared the Democrats would make an issue out of Mr. Faso’s profession, but still ….

As a little-known rural lawmaker whose marriage has just broken up, Mr. Manning would do better to concentrate on introducing himself and his fiscal nostrums to voters rather than on trashing his fellows. While he has made a start by amassing the endorsement of 15 Conservative Party county committees, he hasn’t made much headway among G.O.P. donors: His quarterly campaign-finance filing shows only $25,000 in his gubernatorial account; he acknowledges that his staffers are either being paid out of his Assembly campaign account or have donated their time and services. (He said he has five months to decide whether he wants to run for his present office.) Regarding this lack of cash, Mr. Manning—with a touch of chutzpah—compared himself to the Governor whose record he just had criticized, saying that he had “more [money] than George Pataki had at this time in 1994, when he took down a liberal icon [Mario Cuomo].”

Mr. Manning undoubtedly possesses many good ideas, and his instinct that the G.O.P. should run to the right, not the left, strikes one as on target. But with his thrusts at fellow Republicans, he shows that he has failed to absorb a basic schoolyard lesson: Sometimes, when you try to act like you’re so big, you can wind up appearing rather small.