QUEENS, N.Y, Feb. 24 -- For fans of politics as blood sport, a terrible thing has happened this year to New York Democratic presidential primary voters: They've gone peaceful and pragmatic.
Lloyd Budhram is typical. He is a gemologist, a middle-class homeowner in Queens, and unemployed. He turned a cool, appraising eye on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at a town-hall meeting at York College on Monday.
"My mind is between Kerry and Edwards. Edwards is very young, vibrant but -- " Budhram, who long ago emigrated here from Guyana, shakes his head. "Like most of my family, I'm just looking for someone to replace Bush. He must go. Kerry looks good, and he and Edwards would be an unstoppable team!"
By tradition, the New York primary -- which is Tuesday and offers a rich lode of 236 delegates -- is where Democratic candidates bare their teeth, where tabloid newspapers mock and hector, and where contenders sometimes meet a brutal end. (One thinks of Al Gore, who in 1988 came into New York with White House dreams. He was attacked left and right, and exited feet first two weeks later. Gore dropped out after the primary.)
This year's primary offers a real contest. Kerry held a large lead in a recent poll, and prominent Democrats have lined up in serried ranks to deliver their endorsements. But Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) has not disappeared. He began running television ads upstate on Tuesday, and there are indications that he might close the gap, just as he has in earlier primaries.
Still, the candidates rarely snarl at each other. The tabloid newspaper coverage has been sleepy, as the candidates have not once broken onto the front page. The New York Post's devoutly conservative editorial page has not been as quiet, accusing Kerry of all manner of derelictions, and decrying his "smelly" antiwar rhetoric 33 years ago.
"We've had primaries that are tribal wars, but this isn't one of them," said Mitchell L. Moss of New York University's Taub Urban Research Center.
Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf noted that the state's primary can be intensely entertaining but rarely surprising. The front-runner wins almost every time.
"There's a lot of hoopla, but nothing changes," he said. "Notwithstanding that New Yorkers like to think they are not part of the United States, they are just like Democrats everywhere this year: They want to beat Bush."
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Al Sharpton are campaigning in the state with their markedly liberal messages, but polls show them far behind. Sharpton, a native New Yorker, has spoken repeatedly of police brutality, his signature issue.
Edwards and Kerry have barely mentioned two topics that dominated past New York primaries -- U.S. policy toward Israel and race relations. Instead, they talk about the economy, which is not in terribly good shape here.
"This administration has licensed a creed of greed that is destroying the ordinary person's ability to make it," Kerry said at a Monday meeting in Harlem. "I've never seen the workplace so tilted against the workingman."
Edwards landed in New York and promptly pronounced the city's economy a shambles. "There is no place in America that better defines these two different kinds of America," Edwards said. "There's one of privilege and comfort, and another one filled with struggle."
The city's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, took umbrage, proclaiming Edwards's rhetoric "preposterous." But, strictly by the numbers, the critique was not so wide of the mark.