Gerry New Year! Ferraro’s Senate Rattle

“You can’t cold-cock Geraldine Ferraro,” mused a Democratic insider with a touch of the pragmatist, if not the poet. The undeclared, yet heavily favored, candidate for the Democratic nomination to unseat Senator Alfonse D’Amato had not participated in a Dec. 13 round of show-and-tell for statewide candidates sponsored by the cream of New York’s Democratic chairmen (and we do mean men ; there wasn’t a break in the ring, or rather horseshoe, of county leader testosterone around the table at the Crowne Plaza Hotel across from La Guardia Airport).

The meeting was the latest of many that have been convened for the general purpose of forestalling the possibility of 1998’s reprising the great New York Democratic disasters of 1992 (or ’93 … or ’94 … or ’97), but this one featured a steady stream of would-be governors, senators and attorneys general showing up for their appointed half-hours to sell the chairmen on their money, management teams, personal magnetism and other political sundries. (“Betsy McCaughey Ross said she knows where all Pataki’s bodies are buried, and she’s not afraid to shine a light on them,” a county leader told The Observer . “She’s been saving them up for this race.”) Representative Charles Schumer of Brooklyn and New York City’s Public Advocate, Mark Green, came and went, each expressing confidence that he would emerge as the leadership’s “consensus candidate” for the United States Senate. Even State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, though he faced no primary, weighed in, albeit with the scarf-loose-about-the-neck confidence of last year’s captain at this year’s tryouts.

Ms. Ferraro, however, was nowhere to be found. But then, as everyone present was well aware, she didn’t have to be. After all, “Gerry,” said Paul Adler, chairman of the Democratic Party in Rockland County, “is an icon.”

And that, for the two male Democrats who fancy Mr. D’Amato’s job, means that Ms. Ferraro is also a nightmare. If you ask Mr. Schumer’s people about his prospects, they will tell you that he has something like $8 million chilling in his war chest, a strenuously stitched-together network of political support, and above all, a Congressional record (gun control, domestic violence, gun control, abortion-clinic access, gun control …) second to none for statewide selling points. If you ask Mr. Green’s people, they will tell you that he is as tireless a consumer advocate as he is a telegenic one; a combination that garnered him more votes in the last two citywide elections than Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and that , the thinking goes, translates into sufficient popularity in the downstate counties rich in Democratic primary votes to offset his “mere” million dollars, give or take, in the bank.

But if you ask just about anyone, Ms. Ferraro has-or rather, is-something else altogether. Granted, to power-strip the bloom from the rose, Ms. Ferraro has not held elective office since 1984, when she ended a solid, but not stellar, six-year stint as a Representative of Queens to heed the clarion call of Walter Mondale, whose Presidential candidacy twice made history: when he tapped Ms. Ferraro as the first woman Vice Presidential pick of a major party, and when he lost in 49 states, including New York. And granted, nothing on Ms. Ferraro’s subsequent résumé-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission; authorship of a 1985 memoir; campaigning on behalf of liberal candidates and causes; one year speaking “from the left” on Crossfire -exactly screams “stature.” And, granted, in her last attempt at getting elected, a 1992 race for the very office she is contemplating now, Ms. Ferraro lost, and in a primary so bloodcurdling the Democrats are still afraid of it. But never mind: All of this is remarkable only because none of it matters, at least not at the starting blocks. If ever a public figure embodied the prevalence in American politics of who one is over what one does, that figure is Ms. Ferraro. It is not to belittle any of her accomplishments-nor to underestimate her practical political strengths, which are widely viewed as formidable-to acknowledge that the ace up her sleeve is her place in history.

But it may be the only ace she needs. Just as Elizabeth Taylor never has to go near another sound stage to be considered a movie star, Ms. Ferraro never has to suffer any of the usual candidate indignities-start raising money years in advance; come up with fetch-the-free-media games to boost her name recognition; beg for the support of county leaders-to be considered a contender. Should Ms. Ferraro decide to abandon her current practice of ringing up party pooh-bahs to ask them to hold off on committing to Mr. Schumer or Mr. Green, and periodically tickling the Associated Press with the feather that, yes, she is thinking about it, in favor of actually seeking the nomination, she automatically has every shot at getting it.

Beats D’Amato by Eight Points

“She’s the strongest candidate the Democrats can field against Al D’Amato,” said Democratic point man Victor Kovner, who will support Ms. Ferraro if she runs, as he, among many others, expects her to announce she is doing in early January. “The polls say that loud and clear.” (In November, for example, a New York Post -Fox News poll showed Ms. Ferraro eight percentage points ahead of Mr. D’Amato, who in turn defeats both Mr. Schumer and Mr. Green.)

So what if, constrained by her contract with CNN, she has yet to raise a red cent? “You do have to realize that she starts with an enormous position of strength that other people don’t,” said Karen Johansen, communications director of Emily’s List, the Washington, D.C.-based foundation that is dedicated to the election of Democratic pro-choice women and will solicit, and resolicit, its 45,000 members for the purpose.

So what if Ms. Ferraro can’t officially hire a crack team of consultants? “Clearly, she has her consultants from the last cycle,” observed a Ferraro loyalist, noting the continued presence of strategist Robert Shrum and pollster Celinda Lake (who recently signed on with Ms. McCaughey Ross) in Ms. Ferraro’s inner circle. Latest rumor had it that political consultant David Eichenbaum was being tapped to run the campaign day to day, but the specifics aren’t that important. “You don’t think she could get six people to work for her?” asked an associate of Ms. Ferraro. “I’d say they’re lining up.” And, thanks to the branching out of Emily’s List into the area of campaign-management training, they are ready to roll.

The Gender Thing

But it’s not just the old-girls’ network that puts gender to work in Ms. Ferraro’s favor, and it’s not just the fact that the numbers alone afford a famous Italian woman an excellent chance of trouncing two lesser-known, city-based Jewish men. On the issues, one need only glimpse the pink ceramic breast-cancer awareness pin on the lapel of Mr. D’Amato, or hear his bromides on behalf of “our children” against the evil, tenure-infested United Federation of Teachers, to know whose votes have him feeling vulnerable. In the realm of rhetoric, it is always dicey for a male candidate, particularly in a Democratic primary, to attack a woman. After the giant mud-sling that was the 1992 Senate primary, it could be disastrous. In 1992, Ms. Ferraro narrowly lost the primary to then-Attorney General Robert Abrams, whose attacks on Ms. Ferraro’s lack of heft nicely complemented, for purposes of fratricide, Elizabeth Holtzman’s attacks on Ms. Ferraro’s husband, John Zaccaro. A financially and politically battered Mr. Abrams was then turned over to Mr. D’Amato, who still, Democrats want you to know, had trouble beating him. But far from revealing Ms. Ferraro as damaged candidate goods, the memory of 1992 may inoculate her against personal attacks in the primary. “We will not stand for a bruising, dirty, divisive primary,” said Mr. Adler. “We will come out against a candidate that does that.” This gives her time. “If I’m Geraldine Ferraro, I’m running a late campaign because in 1992 I lost this race in the last 10 days,” said John Marino, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “So I don’t give a crap what happens between now and August.”

That is, of course, assuming that Ms. Ferraro comes home from her Christmas vacation in the Virgin Islands and tells us that she is, indeed, running. As in all such cases, the planet Ferraro is populated both with people who are positive that she is about to do it, and people who are positive that she is genuinely mulling it over. (“I don’t think she knows yet,” said Rick Davis, senior executive producer at Crossfire . “She told me she would be at our next meeting, if we wanted her to be,” said Stephen Sabbeth, chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Committee. And so on.) Insofar as not building the infrastructure of a statewide campaign is a measure of her commitment not to cross the line, Ms. Ferraro is certainly tentative, or supremely confident. “I originally was holding out for the possibility that she was running,” said Assemblyman William B. (Sam) Hoyt III of Erie County, a former member of the Mondale-Ferraro campaign staff who, on Dec. 12, followed 69 elected officials who had came out for Mr. Schumer two days earlier. He did so in part because he took her failure to return his telephone calls as evidence of waning interest. “If this is how you build a campaign, that’s a campaign in trouble.”

This contrasts with the dogged persistence of Mr. Schumer and Mr. Green, who, whatever their qualifications for the Senate seat, definitely want it in the worst way. “If one of them calls, the other one calls an hour later,” said David Alpert, chairman of the Democratic Party in Westchester County. “It’s like the telephones are bugged.”

It is not, however, as if the primary is over. As anyone who remembers the great Draft Ted Kennedy for President movement of 1980 can attest, potential candidates often fare better in polls than actual candidates; Ms. Ferraro’s virtual advantage over Mr. D’Amato has already narrowed. (This can, of course, be chalked up to the Senator’s aggressive early advertising, but given his own resources, those assaults are not about to stop.) If Ms. Ferraro’s fund-raising derives from a field of smaller donations from across the country, that may be a very good thing. “Normally, the indicators are that a candidate [about to get in] would be freezing the big fund-raising,” said Democratic political operative Bill Lynch. “I don’t hear her freezing anybody.”

But don’t forget, Ms. Ferraro is an icon. lf she gets in, as one Democrat summed up a commonly held view of things, “either Schumer slits his throat or Green slits his throat.”

But first, Ms. Ferraro must tip her hand.

Gerry New Year! Ferraro’s Senate Rattle