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  •   D'Amato Shows He Survived Whitewater

    Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.)
    Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), at a news conference about a settlement over Holocaust assets. (Reuters)
    By Blaine Harden
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 7, 1998; Page A06

    NEW YORK, May 6 – The three Democrats who covet Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato's job came to a midtown business breakfast here this week to strut their credentials. They had hardly begun to preen when each was slapped with a deflating question: What makes you think you can bring home the bacon like Big Al?

    As one questioner put it, "The people in this audience believe no one has delivered the way Al D'Amato has."

    The contenders tried their best to denigrate the politician who answers to the name "Senator Pothole." Bashing the incumbent, after all, is their essential task in what may well prove to be the most expensive and bruising of this year's Senate races. But, as the campaign begins to take shape, it is a task that is not getting easier.

    For D'Amato, after a midterm swoon in his approval ratings, is gaining momentum in the polls, campaigning with his usual maniacal energy and has about as much cash on hand – $10.6 million – as his three Democratic foes combined.

    So how did the Democrats disrespect D'Amato at breakfast?

    Front-runner Geraldine A. Ferraro, former vice presidential nominee and former CNN talking head, said that while D'Amato can only do short-term constituent services, she can deliver long-term systemic solutions to fundamental social ills such as troubled public schools.

    New York City public advocate Mark Green, a tart-tongued debater who polls show has the strongest appeal among city Democrats, said that like D'Amato, he's a can-do kind of guy. Green gave chapter and verse about how he helped Barney Burns in Queens beat an unfair $137,000 city water bill.

    Finally, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, the veteran lawmaker from Brooklyn who leads his Democratic rivals in money raised but trails in the polls, scolded D'Amato for never writing big-time legislation. "I think there is a desperate need in the Senate for legislators," Schumer said.

    Was D'Amato worried about any of this? Not a chance. The senator, in fact was at that moment in his Manhattan office doing what he does best: Hammering away on an issue that makes him look like a champion of downtrodden New Yorkers and making sure that he gets the credit in the newspapers and on TV.

    The object of D'Amato's efforts was Estelle Sapir, whose father died in the Holocaust. Crowning his crusade to force Swiss banks to return assets deposited by Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, D'Amato announced that the giant Swiss bank Credit Suisse had caved.

    The bank agreed to pay Sapir an undisclosed settlement (estimated at about $300,000) for savings her Polish-born father deposited during World War II. It was the first of what may be thousands of such settlements to relatives of Nazi victims, and D'Amato reminded Jewish voters of his role in making it all happen.

    "Nobody should have to wait 55 years for justice," the senator thundered while posing for pictures with Sapir. A grateful Sapir looked at the beaming D'Amato and said: "The American people don't appreciate what they have in you."

    Maybe so. But compared to what they thought of him two years ago (when his unfavorable ratings pushed 60 percent), New Yorkers, at least, are warming up to their junior senator. Beside the Swiss bank issue, D'Amato has won positive coverage for fighting for insurance benefits for women with breast cancer and for packing the transportation bill with money for New York. Voters seem to have forgotten or forgiven D'Amato for what many viewed as his bullying behavior as chairman of a Senate committee investigating Whitewater.

    "Now he is doing what a senator is supposed to do. He has figured out what the state wants and he is trying to deliver it. He works his tail off," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Poll, one of three polls showing that D'Amato is considerably better off than he was last year. A Zogby poll in late April showed him handily defeating Ferraro, while the others show him behind but gaining ground.

    More solid than shifting poll numbers is D'Amato's position in New York state as the GOP's Big Dog, the power broker who funnels national party money to state and local candidates. He has led his party this decade as it has triumphed over the 3 to 2 edge Democrats hold over Republicans in registered voters. D'Amato commands a political machine that controls the governor's office, four out of the state's biggest cities (including New York) and 56 out of 62 county governments.

    All this, however, does not mean that he is no longer vulnerable. His unfavorable ratings still hover around 50 percent, which means, according to GOP political consultant Joseph Mercurio, that "the senator is still definitely swimming upstream."

    Ferraro remains the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. But her early lead in the polls has faded, and she has not been notably successful in raising money.

    As was evident at this week's breakfast, where she had vetoed a debate in favor of answering questions from reporters, Ferraro has adopted a front-runner's strategy, avoiding confrontations with Green and Schumer, both of whom are polished debaters.

    All three Democratic contenders say they want to avoid mudslinging in the primary that could cripple the winner and make it easier for D'Amato to win. But that is what candidates almost always say early in campaigns. Meanwhile, Green and Schumer, both of whom lag well behind Ferraro in name recognition, are increasingly frustrated by her above-the-fray strategy.

    "The lack of blood-letting won't last," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

    Schumer, a member of Congress since 1980, is the one Democrat with a war chest to rival D'Amato's. But he may have a difficult time conserving a substantial slice of his $8.2 million for the November election if, as appears likely, he must fight uphill to win the primary on Sept. 15. An expensive and bitterly contested Democratic primary is precisely what D'Amato wants.

    "Al will probably have four times more money than Schumer after the primary. If somebody else wins, he will have even more," said GOP consultant Mercurio. "The race is still in play, but it is certainly moving in the right direction for D'Amato."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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