Ferraro Makes It a Race, But Can She Pry D’Amato From His Senate Throne?

Geraldine Ferraro, fresh off a puddle-jumper just in from Albany, looked around the lobby of Prior Aviation Service in Buffalo, N.Y., as if she were trying to spot someone she was meeting for lunch, rather than trying to pry the seat out from under Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Counting back to the 10 A.M. kickoff at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Manhattan, Ms. Ferraro’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate was not yet eight hours old, but already she was wearing it like an old cardigan.

“I was hoping we would have a podium set up here,” murmured Ms. Ferraro, but not as if it were any big deal. Her entry from the front of the pack into one of the hottest Democratic primaries of 1998 is, of course, a very big deal, but in real life, as opposed to the way it appeared on television, the revelation of it didn’t feel like one. The day was, after all, a press call, not a pep rally, and its general aura was happy but sedate, like a second-time bride in beige. In Manhattan, where the reporter-to-supporter ratio must have been about a dozen to one, Ms. Ferraro’s announcement had more prose in it than passion, and the traditional drum-roll-please line (“So I’m here today with my family … to announce my candidacy for the United States Senate”) got only the lightest salting of applause. Buffalo, too, was able to control itself. There was, as it turned out, a podium, filled with the microphones of about a dozen diffident reporters, but beyond this, not a hint of hoopla; not so much as a single camera-craving upstate politician. There was one campaign volunteer and one aspiring campaign volunteer, a middle-aged man eager to thrust his telephone number into the hand of anyone seeming stafflike. As for an entourage, there were Ms. Ferraro’s fellow travelers (as Mr. D’Amato might call them): Kate Lacey, chairman of the Democratic Party in Cayuga County who had recently left the staff of State Comptroller H. Carl McCall to serve as Ms. Ferraro’s political director, and campaign manager David Eichenbaum.

“This is a weird setup,” murmured Ms. Lacey. She was referring to the sight of local television reporters feeding stories into live monitors that splashed the images right back where they came from, resulting in the mildly eerie effect of the room peering in at itself. But then again, modern political campaigns are a weird setup, in which the cameras in any given setting almost always matter much more than the people-and Ms. Ferraro has reason to thank God for that. “Everything you’re seeing about Gerry is an index of fame, not political strength,” said political consultant Joseph Mercurio. In virtually every sense not related to fame, “We are jump-starting this thing from the ground up,” said Mr. Eichenbaum, and he’s not kidding: As of this moment, the Ferraro campaign has no presence upstate (and the Manhattan office is just getting started). She has almost no staff. She has no money. “She’s going to be making a lot of phone calls,” said Ms. Lacey. “The emphasis will be on putting a fund-raising base together and talking to political leaders.”

But it’s not entirely obvious that political leaders are all that eager to talk to her. “She may be a darling of the media, but I need a candidate who, after they win, will remember me,” a party chairman in a downstate county told The Observer . Come to think of it, Ms. Ferraro’s promise to appear at a Jan. 10 meeting of Democratic county chairmen actually adds a soupçon of spice to the organization’s stated, if dubious, goal of coming up with a “consensus” ticket of statewide candidates. Given the recent track record, earning the consensus of Democratic Party leaders might not be worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit, but as political quandaries go, the chairmen are facing a pretty good one: From their point of view, to endorse Betsy McCaughey Ross for Governor would be to support someone with no history, but plenty of controversy, within the Democratic Party. To endorse Ms. Ferraro would be to endorse someone whose firepower, whatever its caliber actually turns out to be, has nothing to do with them, and would be to do so over two candidates, Representative Charles Schumer of Brooklyn and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, who have been infinitely more solicitous of their help than has Ms. Ferraro. To support State Senator and aspiring Attorney General Catherine Abate, a reformer in need of funds and, some leaders believe, rehabilitation from persistent rumors that she once supported C. Vernon Mason over Robert Morgenthau for Manhattan District Attorney, would be to play into the hands of incumbent Dennis Vacco. (Actually, it was the Village Independent Democrats that endorsed both Mr. Mason and Ms. Abate, then running for re-election as a district leader; indeed, Ms. Abate’s spokesman emphasized that Ms. Abate fought the Village Independent Democrats’ endorsement of Mr. Mason. But the presence of both their names on the sample ballots could make quite a campaign ad.) But to endorse neither Ms. McCaughey Ross nor Ms. Ferraro nor Ms. Abate would be to slam the party’s door on three women seeking three different offices. Hmm …

But in any event, this woman is seeking this office, and, to hear her tell it, ’twill be a stroll in the park. She will not suffer from residual rumblings about her financial affairs and all that nonsense. (Since leaving elective office, Ms. Ferraro had been appointed an ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and, “If there were anything in my background, certainly I would not have been permitted to represent the Government of the United States.”) She has not been politically dormant since 1992. (“I have been in the crossfire!”) The Democratic primary of 1998 will not be a reprise of the Democratic primary of 1992. (“I would certainly make a pledge that there would be none of these personal attacks made … on my part.”) In return, her primary opponents forswore the slinging of mud. Some of their supporters even try to depict Ms. Ferraro’s entry as good news for them, in that she makes a handy windbreaker for any D’Amato spitballs that might be thrown in the next few months. This is wishful thinking-“You think D’Amato hasn’t got a strategy to run against all three of them?” snorted a Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative-but vis-à-vis Ms. Ferraro, the Senator is already doing considerable dirty work for Mr. Schumer and Mr. Green: The New York Post published the day after Ms. Ferraro’s announcement revealed Team D’Amato to be gleefully unsure whether to paint their opponent as Mafia moll (Arthur Coia, the supposedly shady President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, co-hosted a birthday party for Ms. Ferraro last year), a dangerous liberal (for supporting such Bolshevisms as teacher tenure), or just your general female has-been (“the Ruth Messinger of 1998”).

But here in Buffalo, she was just a well-dressed, with-it grandma of 62 who couldn’t match the ruthless ambition of Mr. D’Amato-or, indeed, the flashes of brittle defensiveness sometimes seen from her former candidate-self-if she tried. On Day 1, at least, Ms. Ferraro seemed intent on running, yet taking it easy. In meeting the press, she breezed away the hard-edged questions and bristled only at the softballs. “Why make Buffalo a stop?” she gently mocked the question of a local reporter. “Please!” Ferraro Makes It a Race, But Can She Pry D’Amato From His Senate Throne?