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Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet

A messy Democratic primary in '98 could help him out

By Stuart Rothenberg

New York Senate It's probably a mistake to draw too many conclusions from Sen. Al D'Amato's poll numbers two years before his election. That's because the controversial New York senator always looks headed for political extinction yet recovers enough to win re-election. At least that's what happened in 1986 and 1992, when D'Amato beat consumer activist Mark Green and state attorney general Bob Abrams.

D'Amato's poll ratings are again poor -- he actually trails a number of prospective opponents in some polls -- but they have begun to improve, the result of his early attempts at an image makeover. And as in the past, D'Amato may well benefit from a Democratic opponent who can't take advantage of the senator's weaknesses.

New York City Public Advocate Mark Green is already in the race for the Democratic primary. He argues he is more politically experienced and better known than he was when he drew just 41 percent against D'Amato in 1986, when many of the Republicans elected in the 1980 Republican Senate sweep were defeated in their first bids for re-election.

Green has started to raise money and line up endorsements for the primary, and he has hired veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman to help with his race.

At least two big name Democrats are also looking at a possible bid for their party's nomination. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y. 9) is a nine-term congressman from Brooklyn. He has been looking at a statewide race for months, and the improved standing in polls of Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.) could push Schumer into the Senate race. His greatest asset is his huge campaign war chest, which is about $5 million.

Former New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro is also looking at the race, but she would have to give up her role as one of the resident liberals on CNN's "Crossfire" to make a run for the nomination. While she was a role model of Democratic women when she ran for vice-president in 1984 with Walter Mondale, Ferraro has been away from New York politics for years.

A three-way Democratic fight between Green, Schumer and Ferraro could leave their party bloodied and broken, much as it was in 1992, when D'Amato last won re-election.

D'Amato has already begun to redefine himself, focusing recently on issues like breast cancer and on the Swiss government's failure to return money taken from victims of the Holocaust. The senator, known as "Senator Pothole" for his efforts on nuts-and-bolts concerns of New Yorkers, has always shown an ability to dodge charges about his own ethics and judgment and, instead, make his elections about his opponents, particularly about their liberalism. D'Amato's top political advisor has always been -- and continues to be -- Arthur Finkelstein, who consulted on Benjamin Netanyahu's election victory in Israel.

Democrats think that D'Amato will be particularly vulnerable next year. They note his poll numbers show that he isn't well liked, and they expect that the national attention to fund-raising and ethics will allow them to make the Senate race about D'Amato. Republicans chuckle at the Democrats' optimism, noting that D'Amato is an excellent campaigner who will be well-funded and will make the election a referendum on his opponent. That's why, they argue, he'll be re-elected.

Give D'Amato a slight edge, if only because of his incumbency and the likelihood of a messy Democratic primary. But this could turn out to be an interesting race, and anyone who, this far out, is certain either of the senator's victory or defeat obviously doesn't know much about New York politics.

California 46 Democrat Loretta Sanchez wasn't expected to beat Republican congressman Bob Dornan last year, but after all the votes were counted, Sanchez, a businesswoman, had upset Dornan. Dornan continues to challenge the results, arguing that voting irregularities (including votes cast by illegal aliens) cost him victory, and the House of Representatives' House Oversight Committee is looking into his charges.

But while Dornan isn't likely to get the House to change the election's results, Sanchez's future in Congress is already in doubt. That's because Dornan and two other Republicans are already eyeing 1998, planning to cut Sanchez's career off almost before it gets started.

Lisa Hughes, the chairman of the California Lottery Commission and a wealthy attorney/accountant, has already made the rounds in Washington and will seek the Republican nomination in the 46th C.D. Hughes, who has been active in state GOP politics but has never before run for office, is a moderate on abortion but conservative on issues like the economy and crime. She has the personal financial resources to jump start her campaign, and contacts with the state GOP's movers-and-shakers that should allow her to raise well over $1 million in her race for the nomination and the general election.

But Hughes will have to fight off Dornan, and possibly Assemblyman Curt Pringle, just for the right to take on Sanchez. Pringle hasn't made up his mind about the race, but the state's term limits law could push him into the congressional race.

Meanwhile, Sanchez has hired a politically savvy top aide, and national women's and Democratic groups are likely to rally around her, if only because she beat Dornan and the controversial former GOP congressman continues to contest her election.

Look for another rousing race in the 46th District next year.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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