Pataki Again?

Can you feel the George Pataki fever? Neither can I. But apparently the former New York governor think he can coax a lot of people into believing in him one last time.

For a while, Pataki has come up as a possible challenger to Kirsten Gillibrand—the appointed senator who has struggled to connect with New Yorkers—in next year’s election. The G.O.P. nod would probably be his if he wants it, and polls suggest he’d have a decent chance of unseating her, especially with the national climate set to favor Republicans in 2010.

But the 64-year-old Pataki, it seems, isn’t interested in the Senate race. Instead has his eyes on a 2012 presidential campaign. Laugh (or yawn) all you want, but that’s really the only conclusion to draw from some of his recent actions.

Start with his surprise endorsement of Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman in this fall’s special House election in the 23rd District in upstate New York. It made no sense from a personal standpoint—Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee, is an old Pataki ally who had previously organized fund-raisers for him. The endorsement also seemed to clash with the pro-choice Pataki’s belief in a Big Tent; Hoffman was targeting Scozzafava in part because of her cultural liberalism.

Moreover, the endorsement put Pataki squarely at odds with the 11 North Country Republican county chairmen who had selected Scozzafava as their nominee—and who were being demeaned as backroom hacks by the Hoffman crowd. These are the same Republican chairmen that Pataki would need working overtime for him in any campaign against Gillibrand. And he alienated all of them.

“It has to be,” one longtime Republican operative observed this week, “that he’s looking at something on a national scale.”

From the national standpoint, of course, the Hoffman endorsement was a no-brainer. So what if Pataki ticked off Scozzafava and a few rural county chairmen in New York? When you’re a pro-choice New Yorker and you’re trying to make friends with a national G.O.P. base dominated by cultural conservatives, you can’t pick enough fights with Northeast moderates.

Then there was the phone call from Pataki to Ted Gatsas early last month. The name Ted Gatsas might not mean that much to you, but his title should: mayor-elect of Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire (and before that, president of the New Hampshire State Senate). In a bid for the Republican nomination, Gatsas would be an important ally in an important primary state. On the day after he was elected last month, Gatsas told ABC News that he’d already received congratulatory calls from Pataki, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

Reached by the Observer this week, Gatsas said he has considered Pataki a friend since Pataki campaigned door-to-door with him in 2006, when Gatsas was running for the State Senate and Pataki was exploring a 2008 presidential bid.

“It was a call of just saying congratulations,” the mayor-elect said. “It was more of a ‘how’s-everything-going and what-have-you-been-up-to thing.’ Nothing about 2012.” Gatsas added that his conversation with Romney—who also campaigned with him in 2006 and who is most definitely running for 2012—went exactly the same way.

Don’t forget how eagerly Pataki flung himself into the debate over the upcoming 9/11 trials in New York. Sure, he probably has strong feelings on the subject. But it was also the perfect marriage between his status as a New Yorker—which prompted television producers to take a sudden (and fleeting) interest in him—and his need to deliver as much red meat to the Republican base as possible between now and the Iowa caucuses. Pataki had an opportunity for publicity and he didn’t pass it up.

Those who know him say Pataki has spoken for years—decades, really—of his interest in being president someday. Even when he was an unknown 49-year-old mayor of Peekskill pursuing what was supposed to be a suicide run against Mario Cuomo in 1994, Pataki would talk earnestly of winning the governorship and parlaying it into the presidency.

He also has an unusual appetite for the retail aspect of campaigning—party dinners, house parties, county fairs and the like. Some politicians aspire to the presidency, but dread the process of getting there. Pataki might be the opposite.

In that sense (and in that sense only), his interest in 2012 makes sense. He’ll be 67 then, so realistically it’s the last time he’ll ever be even remotely plausible as a candidate. And with the Republican field wide open (at least by historical standards—there’s no obvious heir-apparent this time), Pataki can, from this far-out vantage point, look at the race and ask, “Why not me?”

Pataki wanted to run for president in 2008, but there wasn’t room for two pro-choice New Yorkers in the G.O.P. race, and Rudy Giuliani, “America’s Mayor,” wasn’t about to defer to a guy who left Albany with his tail between his legs. Pataki spent 2005 and 2006 working the grass-roots circuit hard in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping that Rudy might get cold feet, but Rudy didn’t. In 2012 there won’t be a Rudy to worry about.

That said, Pataki’s actual prospects for victory, if he does get in, are vanishingly slim. The field may be open, but there isn’t much that will draw Republicans to Pataki instead of any of the other eight or so other candidates.

His pro-choice position, which he would no doubt try to downplay and nuance (no public funding!), means that a big chunk of G.O.P. primary voters won’t even give him a fair hearing. To those who do, he’ll probably feel like a past-tense candidate—a fairly bland, inoffensive guy who’s been off the stage and who seems to be running because it beats playing golf every day. He’s not associated with any particular issues or causes that might help him build a following.

If there’s a parallel to a Pataki ’12 candidacy, it’s probably Tommy Thompson’s bid for the ’08 Republican nod. Like Pataki, Thompson enjoyed brief national prominence in the mid-1990s, when Republican governors were in vogue. But, for both of them, the timing just wasn’t right back then to run for the White House themselves.

When Thompson left George W. Bush’s cabinet, G.O.P. leaders hoped to convince him to challenge Democratic Senator Herb Kohl in 2006—a race that polls indicated Thompson could win. Thompson was 65 years old and uninterested in being a freshman senator, but he did want to be president and ’08 was his only chance, so he got in. And no one paid attention. After a miserable showing in the summer ’07 Iowa straw poll, he dropped out.

A ’12 Pataki campaign feels at least a decade too late, and even 10 years ago it probably wouldn’t have worked. Pataki might succeed in a Senate campaign next year, but apparently he’s not interested. Running for president in 2012 would require a leap of faith, but Pataki knows what he wants out of life, and it looks like he might reach for the presidency one last time.

Pataki Again?