Democrats Wait on Eliot Spitzer, Imminent ‘It Boy’

Standing before a dozen television cameras, demurely accepting recognition as financial officers from 17 states said they will adopt the anti-conflict-of-interest principles known as the “Spitzer principles,” State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced nothing less than a “revolution” in the embattled world of high finance.

“Institutional shareholders in the form of state pension funds are coming to life,” he said at the Aug. 12 press conference. “That is a necessary and very important step forward in changing and ending the era of the imperial C.E.O. that for too many years dominated corporate governance.”

It was the second press conference of the day for Mr. Spitzer, who hours earlier had announced the busting up of an identity-theft ring. As he campaigns for a second term, Mr. Spitzer has had no small amount of success in getting his name before the public. Indeed, plug in any issue du jour, any perceived wrong-and there are a lot of them these days-and there is Eliot Spitzer, aiming squarely at the bad guys.

Mr. Spitzer has appeared on 60 Minutes and Nightline . He’s been profiled in The New York Times Magazine . He can break a story in the Financial Times of London that makes headlines back home.

It’s a sign of the malaise in the state Democratic Party that many insiders already are beginning to talk-albeit very quietly-about the chances of a Democrat winning back the Governor’s office in 2006. At the top of their wish list is Mr. Spitzer, whose name recognition has shot through the roof in the last year, private pollsters say, and who appears-for now, at least-to have no negatives.

The fact that there actually is a wish list for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary-which also includes Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi-is a measure of just how badly things are going for this year’s would-be nominees, both of whom once seemed such bright stars: Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall. Neither has made much headway against incumbent Governor George Pataki, who leads both by double-digit margins as he seeks a third term.

“George Pataki is going to win,” said George Arzt, a lobbyist and consultant with a mostly Democratic clientele. “Neither Democrat has any traction,” added consultant Norman Adler, who works for candidates from both political parties.

Of course, anything can happen between now and November. A year ago, the very phrase “Mayor Michael Bloomberg” prompted snorts of derision among most political insiders. As the economy sags and one corporate rapscallion after another appears on the scene, things may get ugly for Republicans around the country, Mr. Pataki included. And in New York, voters have been electing Democrats statewide with increasing frequency-in fact, Mr. Pataki is the lone Republican elected official statewide.

Nevertheless, Eliot Spitzer is clearly the man that many Democrats regard as the party’s future standard-bearer. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said when asked about his image while ducking into an elevator. A blush showed beneath his sunburn, which he’d acquired during a three-day canoe trip under clear blue skies on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.

“I disagree with your premise,” Mr. Spitzer said as he grabbed a chair near the lobby security desk. “I’m supporting Carl [McCall], and he’s going to win the primary. There will be a very competitive race in November. In no way, shape or form am I thinking beyond that.”

The record suggests there’s no reason for him to think otherwise. In recent years, those holding the office of Attorney General in New York have been doomed to retire without having gone on to higher office. Bob Abrams never became a U.S. Senator. Louis Lefkowitz never became Governor. Dennis Vacco couldn’t get himself re-elected, losing to Mr. Spitzer in 1998.

But hope springs eternal, and Mr. Spitzer clearly has his eyes on higher office. “Do I want to do this job for 30 years? No,” he said. “Anybody loses vitality when they do one thing for too long.”

There was hardly a breath before he added, “But there is much more I want to do in this job. There is still a sense of creative energy in my office. I am running for a second term.”

Who Is Judge Dora?

Yes, he is. His opponent-whose name you probably don’t know-is Judge Dora Irizarry. After a series of speakers at last spring’s Republican state convention mangled the pronunciation of her last name, she was christened “Judge Dora.” But even Republicans privately don’t take Judge Dora’s chances seriously.

What’s astonishing is that Mr. Spitzer looks so unbeatable after a term that didn’t start out particularly well. He barely squeaked past Mr. Vacco in what was a good year for Democrats-the year Charles Schumer beat Alfonse D’Amato. And afterwards, there were serious questions-still not entirely put to rest-about how Mr. Spitzer financed his campaign, which involved the sale of co-operative apartments once owned by his father, real-estate developer Bernard Spitzer. The image that Eliot Spitzer garnered that year, even among some Democrats, was of a rich boy who bought his way into office using his daddy’s money.

Under these circumstances, the Republicans should have been able to mount a realistic campaign against Mr. Spitzer this year instead of worrying about halting his 2006 gubernatorial ambitions.

But Republicans clearly have given up that ghost. Earlier this year, Republican consultants were blustering to reporters that Judge Dora would be well-financed by those same business interests Mr. Spitzer has so enraged. So far, at least, those promises have come to naught.

Even so, Mr. Spitzer is leaving nothing to chance. He has signed up some high-voltage consultants. Media man David Axelrod, who parted ways with Mr. McCall months ago, now works for Mr. Spitzer. Mr. Axelrod calls the Attorney General “formidable, formidable, formidable.”

The Spitzer pollsters are the Global Strategy Group. And Clinton-era bête noire Dick Morris, an old family friend, is an unpaid advisor.

Even Republican operatives are offering Mr. Spitzer some advice: “If he’s smart, he’ll raise and spend a lot of money on television this year to capitalize on his name recognition,” said one G.O.P. operative. “Then, in 2006, he’ll have a solid platform on which to build.”

“Eliot Spitzer lives by George Washington Plunkitt’s credo,” said Mr. Adler, conjuring the name of the Tammany Hall operative whose political philosophy (such as it was) was turned into a book nearly a century ago: “‘He saw his opportunities and he took ‘em.’ Eliot Spitzer has a well-run office. This allows him to focus on issues of the moment. And he is.”

Mr. Spitzer says he’s somewhat amused by it all. “I did not expect these issues to explode the way they did,” he said.

Nor would anyone who watched his 1998 campaign. Indeed, over a light lunch around this time four years ago, Mr. Spitzer made his case: He was running as a sort of Clintonian Democrat, pro–death penalty, anti-crime, who sold himself as a “liberal with common sense.” He was tilting against the windmills of the New York Democratic Party.

That year, Mr. Spitzer promised to do things like go after mentally ill homeless people. Instead, he has cracked down on Merrill Lynch and the Red Cross, and talked about the effects of acid rain. “All these issues are about restoring the confidence the public has in various institutions,” Mr. Spitzer says, groping for a common theme.

Of course, Mr. Spitzer (assuming he does, in fact, win re-election) may not seem so attractive in four years, as Hank Sheinkopf notes. Mr. Sheinkopf was Mr. Spitzer’s 1998 consultant, who has since had a falling out with Team Spitzer. But he correctly notes that four years is a lifetime in politics. “On paper, he has a clear shot,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “But it depends on what the next four years look like. There could be a huge business backlash against him.”

But for now, it’s clear sailing. Or clear paddling, on the sun-tinted lakes of New York.