Out of the Running, Paterson Starts Sprinting

By all appearances, David Paterson now has something he has so glaringly lacked since last year: a game plan for

By all appearances, David Paterson now has something he has so glaringly lacked since last year: a game plan for winning a full term in 2010.

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As the Observer's Jimmy Vielkind noted, the governor has begun employing a cohesive, aggressive strategy to cultivate specific key constituencies—an aggressive push for gay marriage, for instance, aimed at winning back sympathetic liberals—and to win the daily headline wars.

In a way, it's all elementary stuff (which makes Mr. Paterson's previous flailing all the more galling), but it's also evidence that Mr. Paterson still believes he can win a ‘10 campaign—and that he finally has a competent team steering his campaign ship.

This would all be great (for Mr. Paterson) if it were March 2008, when he first assumed office, and not March 2009. Sure, there's still plenty of time before the September ‘10 Democratic primary, but the governor has inflicted so much damage on himself in the last year that the idea gaining a second look from voters, even those in his own party, is fanciful.

It's not unusual for accidental governors like Mr. Paterson to begin their tenures facing deep deficits in primary and general election polling. Generally, few voters know who their lieutenant governor is (or whoever their state's next-in-line figure is). This makes for a terrific opportunity for the new governor, who is customarily greeted with friendly and pervasive press coverage and who can use the office to build his or her public image without first having to go through a campaign.

This is how, for instance, Jodi Rell, an anonymous former state representative who had spent 10 years as John Rowland's do-nothing lieutenant governor, won an 80 percent approval rating within months of succeeding Mr. Rowland in 2004—an exalted perch she has largely maintained in the five years (and one election) since then. When Eliot Spitzer folded his hand a year ago, Mr. Paterson inherited this same opportunity.

But since then, he has succeeded only in demonstrating the downside that can come with an accidental governorship. Through one baffling misstep after another, Mr. Paterson has emphatically convinced New Yorkers that he's simply not up to the job.

In the latest Marist poll, 77 percent of all voters—and 71 percent in his own party—rated the governor's job performance as "fair" or "poor." He trails Andrew Cuomo by 49 points in a prospective primary match-up, and runs drastically worse against the two most likely G.O.P. nominees than Cuomo. Mr. Paterson actually trails Rick Lazio, who was last seen invading Hillary Clinton's personal space in 2000, by three points; Mr. Cuomo beats Lazio by 45.

There really is no formula in these numbers for a comeback. Mr. Paterson has made a horrific first impression on voters. There are no positive memories-"Gee, remember when he did X?"-for the public to fall back on. New Yorkers never chose Mr. Paterson for this job.

The bigger problem for Mr. Paterson, though, is that Democrats have a clear and compelling alternative—Mr. Cuomo. 70 percent of all voters—and 75 percent of Democrats—rate the attorney general's job performance as "excellent" or "good." This is no surprise: the A.G.'s office is a P.R.-conscious pol's dream, and Mr. Cuomo has exploited it to the hilt. To pragmatists, Mr. Cuomo simply looks like a winner.

A quick review of past polling finds that just three sitting governors in the last three decades have faced intra-party deficits as severe as Paterson's: Four months before the 1982 Massachusetts Democratic primary, Governor Ed King trailed former Governor Michael Dukakis (beaten by King in the ‘1978 primary) 68 to 20 percent; in March 2002, six months before the Massachusetts G.O.P. primary, acting Governor Jane Swift was 63 points behind Mitt Romney, 75 to 12 percent; and a year before the 2006 Nebraska Republican primary, acting Governor Dave Heineman was 40 points behind Tom Osborne.

Of those three, only one, Mr. Heineman, ended up surviving. But that was because, unlike Mr. Paterson, he brilliantly capitalized on his accidental incumbency, gaining ground against Mr. Osborne every month, until Republicans finally asked, "Why change?"

The more apt comparison here is to Ms. Swift, who botched her early months just as badly as Mr. Paterson has. She, too, thought she could still survive and hatched a plan to fight back and defeat Mr. Romney. "Message to Mitt Romney," the opening line of a Boston Herald story read after Ms. Swift insisted she'd run no matter what, "Forget about trying to ease or scare acting Gov. Jane Swift out of the governor's race. She's not folding."

Two days later, she folded.

Out of the Running, Paterson Starts Sprinting