Schumer Favored to Face D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 1998; Page A2
NEW YORK, Sept. 13 In a closely watched but oddly insipid Senate primary, longtime Brooklyn Rep. Charles E. Schumer, powered by $13 million, has come from far behind to emerge as the favorite to win the Democratic contest on Tuesday and face the $22 million juggernaut of Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.
The contest has lived up to predictions that it would be one of the most expensive Senate races in American history. Schumer already has spent $8 million, a record in a New York Democratic primary, and D'Amato has spent $11 million, even though he doesn't yet have an opponent. For weeks both candidates have saturated television stations statewide with campaign ads.
Given the Republican incumbent's perceived vulnerability in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, the primary also was expected to be a lively battle among three heavyweight Democrats vying for the right to knock D'Amato out of office. It hasn't turned out that way.
While Monica S. Lewinsky, terrorist bombings and bears on Wall Street have stolen public attention, what little interest the race has generated has been focused on the timid campaign tactics and apparently fizzling prospects of Geraldine A. Ferraro.
The 1984 vice presidential nominee and former CNN talking head stormed into the primary at the beginning of the year as the overwhelming front-runner. For several months polls showed her walloping Schumer and New York Public Advocate Mark Green in both name recognition and in voter expectations that she alone had the heft to take on D'Amato.
But Ferraro acknowledges that she is disappointed by her ability to raise money. She vowed in January to raise $5 million, but ended up with about half that amount, a fraction of Schumer's war chest.
In addition, Ferraro, who narrowly lost the Senate primary in 1992, has run a blandly defensive front-runner's campaign. Not until today did she agree to participate in widely televised debates.
"Unlike my opponents . . . I am someone who has national stature," Ferraro said in the first of today's two debates.
This was the mantra of her campaign, but several recent polls suggest it has become less persuasive as the primary vote has grown near and as her perceived electability in November has diminished. A poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion released today found that 47 percent of likely Democratic voters see Schumer as having the best chance of defeating D'Amato, compared with 28 percent for Ferraro and 12 percent for Green. D'Amato defeated Green in the 1986 general election.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the debate and of the entire primary campaign came today when Ferraro was asked about the millions of dollars Schumer has been able to raise. "This has been the most outrageous race to try to raise money and it is virtually impossible. I envy Chuck a little bit. I wish I had more money," Ferraro said.
Political analysts say that money and the lack thereof has been the decisive factor in Schumer's surge as measured in primary polls.
"Nothing has changed except money and television," said former governor Mario M. Cuomo (D). "Schumer didn't win any debates. He didn't come up with any new ideas and his opponents did not tragically fall apart. Schumer just bought more time on television."
Cuomo said that while he regards Schumer, 47, as "an extremely impressive candidate and one of the good guys in my book," he doubts how well the Brooklyn congressman, with about $5 million in his campaign treasury, can do against D'Amato, who has about $11 million.
"What happens when a lot of money meets a colossal lot of money in November?" asked Cuomo, who said he is sickened by the pivotal role of money in politics.
The debate question today about Schumer's money triggered one of the few genuinely confrontational moments of the primary race. All three candidates, who differ little on most issues, have more or less stuck to promises they would try to avoid the ugly and divisive fights that weakened past winners of Democratic Senate primaries as they went on to challenge D'Amato.
Green, though, could not restrain himself when the money question came up.
He laughed out loud as Schumer, a member of the House Banking Committee, explained why his fund-raising is "totally different" than that of D'Amato, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Green continued laughing as Schumer, who has taken about one-quarter of his contributions from banks and securities firms, explained that he supports campaign finance reform.
"Hearing Chuck Schumer denounce the campaign finance system in the Congress while milking it for $13 million, so much of it from money before his House Banking Committee, reminds me of Elmer Gantry denouncing sin," said Green, who has managed to raise just $2.8 million.
While Schumer has been aggressive in raising money this year (and shrewd in rolling over unspent money from earlier House campaigns), he also has a strong legislative record to run on and advertise.
He sponsored the Brady bill to impose a waiting period on handgun buyers, wrote the ban on assault weapons and also wrote the 1994 crime bill that had money in it to hire 100,000 police around the country.
"What distinguishes me in the race is that I am a legislator," said Schumer, who contended that D'Amato, by contrast, is not a crafter of laws but a "tool of special interests."
The combination of a credible record, an aggressive campaign style and a wad of cash that will make it possible for Schumer, if he wins on Tuesday, to come out swinging against D'Amato, has helped him garner influential newspaper endorsements. The New York Times, Long Island's Newsday and the Daily News all have endorsed him in recent days.
The remaining wild card in the New York primary season is the much-argued-over appearance that President Clinton plans to make in Manhattan for an election-eve fund-raiser. Many Democrats are furious that Clinton, scarred by the salacious details in the report submitted to Congress by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, could damage the party's prospects.
Perhaps reflecting his confidence that he has the primary sewn up, Schumer is the only Senate candidate to make a firm commitment to attend the fund-raiser. Ferraro and Green cited scheduling conflicts and said they will only pop in quickly.
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