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  •   Polls Drop as Vitriol Rises in N.Y. Senate Race

    By Blaine Harden
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, October 15, 1998; Page A12

    Relentlessly negative television ads in the Senate race are souring New Yorkers on both the Republican incumbent, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, according to pollsters here.

    Yet as the approval ratings of both combatants decline, pollsters say the race continues to be a dead heat.

    Schumer, a nine-term congressman from Brooklyn, is way ahead of D'Amato in New York City, with a near 2 to 1 edge, according to a Quinnipiac College Poll released today. But D'Amato leads narrowly in the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester and holds a 57 percent to 38 percent edge upstate. About one-quarter of the vote traditionally comes from the city, while about three-quarters comes from the suburbs and upstate.

    Trying to appeal to all three segments of New York, D'Amato and Schumer have blanketed the state with attack ads on television and radio for the past month. The contest could be the most expensive in the nation, with the two sides spending a total of $35 million.

    D'Amato began hammering Schumer last month for being a big-city liberal who doesn't know or care about rural upstaters. He has since shifted to ads that accuse Schumer of "full-time pay, part-time work" for skipping votes in Congress this year. Schumer has responded to each negative ad with an attack ad of his own. Nearly all of them accuse the three-term senator of being a chronic liar.

    "In a mud fight, everyone gets dirty. The negative advertising barrage leveled at and by both candidates is scoring hits," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Poll. It showed that both D'Amato and Schumer have significantly fallen in the past two weeks in the percentage of voters rating them favorably.

    D'Amato's approval rating slipped from 37 to 30 percent and Schumer's from 30 to 22 percent. Schumer's approval and disapproval numbers are lower than D'Amato's because of the large number of voters, 42 percent, who have no opinion about him.

    Scrambling for an edge wherever they can find it, both Schumer and D'Amato are attempting to respond -- and to be seen by voters to be responding -- to outrage over the murder of a gay University of Wyoming student, who was beaten and lashed to a split-rail fence last week after being lured from a bar near the campus in Laramie. Matthew Shepard died in a hospital on Monday.

    Both candidates are pushing for legislation that would expand the federal government's jurisdiction to prosecute hate crimes. Schumer is the author of the proposed Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which has languished in Congress for nearly a year and a half. Since last summer, D'Amato has been a sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate.

    Schumer and D'Amato are demanding that the bill be attached to the "omnibus" spending bill that Congress is rushing to pass before adjourning for the elections. According to his spokesman, D'Amato has spoken to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Judiciary Committee chairman, to urge immediate passage. Schumer's office said the congressman welcomes D'Amato's support for the bill.

    Both candidates are seeking the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay political group. Its political director, Winnie Stachelberg, said the group's board of directors has not yet decided which candidate to endorse. But she described both Schumer and D'Amato as "good friends, with long track records of support for the gay and lesbian community."

    The endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign could substantially influence the margin by which Schumer carries New York City, according to pollster John Zogby. He said that Schumer needs 65 to 70 percent of the vote in the city to have a solid chance of winning the Senate seat. "If gays will either sit on their hands or pull a lever for D'Amato, that is for Schumer the sort of thing that really hurts," said Zogby.

    Besides attacking each other on television, Schumer and D'Amato have been increasingly negative about each other in person. Schumer pounded D'Amato on Tuesday for pocketing $390,000 in speaking fees from 1981 to 1991, the year Congress disallowed members from receiving such payments. Citing financial disclosure forms, Schumer said some of the money came from tobacco, insurance and other industries overseen by Congress.

    "Al D'Amato and I came to Congress in the same year. He pocketed $390,000. I took nothing," Schumer said Tuesday. D'Amato dismissed the charge as nonsense, calling it "an act of a desperate man who's missed over 100 votes."

    The Quinnipiac poll found that 60 percent of voters felt Schumer spends more time attacking D'Amato than explaining his positions, while 66 percent felt D'Amato spends more time attacking Schumer than explaining what he will do if reelected.

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