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A wizard casts his spell

Wily Al D'Amato is fighting for his political life against the strongest opponent he has ever faced

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

(TIME, Oct. 26) -- For Bill Clinton and the Democrats this year, Senator Alfonse D'Amato is Target One--the Republican they most want to knock off. Running for his fourth term, the gruff, perpetually embattled New Yorker, who barely squeaked past a weak Democratic challenger six years ago, is considered one of the G.O.P.'s two most vulnerable Senators (Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina is the other). If the Democrats can beat them, it would help avoid a 60-seat G.O.P. majority and hold down the number of hostile votes in what may become Clinton's impeachment jury. But for the President, the New York race is personal. As chairman of the Senate Whitewater hearings in 1995 and '96, D'Amato said he wanted "every child in America to know how to spell subpoena." That kind of talk helped make this race a presidential grudge match. Clinton traveled to New York last week to raise $1 million for D'Amato's challenger, Representative Charles Schumer, and both the President and First Lady will visit again before Election Day. "D'Amato is like a roach," says a Clinton adviser. "He's hard to kill. You keep stomping on him, but he just scuttles away."

Schumer, the son of a Brooklyn exterminator, is D'Amato's most formidable rival ever, a nine-term Congressman with solid centrist credentials, a dazzling legislative record, and as much energy, ambition and shamelessness as D'Amato. (The most dangerous place in Washington, Bob Dole once said, is between Schumer and a TV camera.) And this time, some of D'Amato's old tricks haven't been working. He and his consultant, the reclusive Arthur Finkelstein, like to brand opponents as hopelessly, shamelessly, endlessly liberal, but Schumer supports the death penalty and wrote the 1994 Crime Bill, which put 100,000 cops on the beat, so the charge hasn't stuck. Schumer has authored major gun-control legislation (the Brady Bill and the assault-weapon ban), and he supports campaign-finance reform and abortion rights, both popular positions in New York. D'Amato toes the N.R.A. line, opposed campaign-finance reform--he's a notorious arm-twisting fund raiser--and has voted 94 times to restrict abortion rights. And Schumer is the first opponent who can credibly claim to deliver for New York as well as "Senator Pothole" does. So, in a state that enjoys colorful pols but tends to toss them out after three terms (Mayor Ed Koch, Governor Mario Cuomo), that means D'Amato--who has done favors for mobsters and was reprimanded by his Senate colleagues for ethical lapses--will be the next to fall, right?

Not so fast. The race is too close to call. Each side is conjuring spells against the other, but when it comes to political black magic, no sorcerer in America is more powerful than D'Amato.

"How outrageous it is! A serious matter! Unforgivable!" His rough voice breaking into a nasal sneer, D'Amato turned a Manhattan press conference last week into a master class in tabloid politics, a seminar on how to generate bogus indignation over a manufactured issue. "It is an outrage that Chuck Schumer doesn't take his job seriously enough to show up for work," he said, assailing Schumer's spotty attendance record this year, when the Congressman missed 110 floor votes because he was out campaigning for the Senate nomination. It was a neat trick--turning reality upside down, as Schumer is many things, but lazy isn't one of them. He is regarded, even by colleagues who can't stand him, as one of the hardest-working House members, and his career attendance record--92%--rivals D'Amato's. But the sorcerer knows a good issue when he sees it, and he was working this one hard because it undercuts Schumer's argument that he would represent New York as maniacally as D'Amato always has. "Let me ask you, anyone," D'Amato said. "If you missed that much work in one year, would you have the nerve to ask for a promotion?"

Schumer says that many of the missed votes involved procedural housekeeping matters and that in no case would his ballot have been decisive. But his absences handed D'Amato an issue, and he has raised it daily, at press conferences and in a carpet-bombing barrage of television spots.

Schumer has tried to inoculate himself against the attacks with a harsh line, "D'Amato: too many lies for too long," but pre-emptive strikes only get you so far, and he's being outspent. (D'Amato and the state G.O.P. will probably spend more than $25 million on the campaign, Schumer and the Democrats less than $20 million, and much of that was used in his primary.) "The issue of missed votes is really beside the point," Schumer told TIME last week. But when he said it, he was stuck in Washington so he wouldn't miss any more. By then D'Amato had segued into a new song, attacking Schumer for voting against a disaster-relief package (one championed, of course, by D'Amato) for victims of a devastating ice storm last winter in upstate New York and New England. "Schumer votes for foreign aid for countries like Mongolia but votes against upstate New York," a D'Amato spot charged. "If you live in Mongolia"--cut to a herd of double-humped camels in the Gobi Desert--"Schumer's your man. If you live in New York, Al d'Amato's there for you."

In fact, Schumer voted against the aid package because it was financed by cuts in housing programs for senior citizens and the poor. But such nuances are easily lost--as D'Amato trusts they will be. This is lizard-brain politics, the sort of reflexive slugging that emanates from the brain stem, not the hemispheres of higher thought. And D'Amato does it better than anyone else. In 1992 he so rattled his hapless opponent, former state attorney general Robert Abrams, that Abrams called him a "fascist." D'Amato spilled crocodile tears and accused Abrams of slurring Italian Americans. Abrams never recovered. "Abrams was a bleeder," says a Schumer adviser. "Chuck can take a punch."

Now he'd better land one, and quickly. He has rolled out a new spot highlighting D'Amato's antiabortion stance, and he keeps trying to persuade New Yorkers that D'Amato's bring-home-the-bacon image is phony. Through all the scandals that have beclouded D'Amato--his relatives and friends got federally funded houses; his brother got to use D'Amato's Senate office as a lobbyist's suite--many voters have clung to one idea: D'Amato may be a blackguard, but he's their blackguard, grabbing whatever he can for the state. Schumer argues that D'Amato has been bad for New York because he voted to cut funding for schools, hospitals, highways and the environment. When D'Amato holds a press conference to trumpet some pork-barrel item, says Schumer, "he's working an elaborate con. He chops off your hand, then sews a finger back on and expects a pat on the back."

There's truth to the charge, yet it's a difficult one to drive home because D'Amato is among the most creative politicians in America. There are few constituencies he won't court, often doing some good in the process. In 1992 he began what he calls a "lonely fight" to increase funding for breast-cancer research--and reduce his gender gap--tapping Pentagon money (almost $900 million so far) for the research. In 1993 he bucked his party and backed Clinton on gays in the military; last week a leading gay-rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, was mulling a D'Amato endorsement. And in 1996 D'Amato held hearings exposing Swiss banks for hoarding the property of Holocaust victims, a crusade featured in his ads.

Most New Yorkers long ago made up their minds about D'Amato. Just 10% of the electorate remains undecided in the race, with the rest split cleanly between the two candidates, though Schumer's support may be slipping. Turnout will decide the contest. As little as 50% of the electorate is likely to vote--so which side will show up in force? D'Amato has more money for phone banks and direct-mail appeals; Schumer is counting on what's left of New York labor to pull voters, especially in the five boroughs, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1. He needs a huge turnout there--and in upstate cities like Buffalo--to offset D'Amato's relative strength in the suburbs and the North Country.

Even the TV attacks are designed less to change minds than to mobilize believers. Schumer will hit D'Amato for breaking his promise not to run for re-election this year, and he'll sample from the smorgasbord of D'Amato scandals for whatever looks fresh and juicy. D'Amato will go after Schumer for voting against welfare reform, the Gulf War and whatever else his researchers can dig up. With two weeks to go, says D'Amato, "we're just getting started." It's down, it's dirty, and he's loving every minute of it.

D'AMATO'S ADS

THE STRATEGY
Hit Schumer for a bogus issue like his spotty attendance record in Congress this year

THE DAMAGE
Makes Schumer look lazy to voters who don't know him

SCHUMER'S RESPONSE
Stresses solid career attendance record in Congress; slaps back at D'Amato for his votes on guns and abortion

SCHUMER'S ADS

THE STRATEGY
Remind voters of scandals without mentioning them

THE DAMAGE
After 18 years, are New Yorkers finally tired of Al?

D'AMATO'S RESPONSE
He feigns outrage and counterattacks with a barrage of nasty ads


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 26, 1998

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