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  •   The Gaffe Heard Round N.Y.

    Alfonse D'Amato
    U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato campaigning in Brooklyn. (Richard Drew — AP)
    By Blaine Harden
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, October 28, 1998; Page A1

    NEW YORK, Oct. 27 Call it the "putzhead syndrome" Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato's tendency to push for political advantage beyond the borders of what many voters perceive as seemly.

    It demolished a particularly sweet campaign moment last week for the three-term New York Republican, locked in a dead-even, donnybrook of a race against Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a Brooklyn Democrat.

    The senator was doing what he does best, delivering favors and taking credit for it. The place was Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. D'Amato was smiling beatifically for TV cameras and holding the hand of Janet Franquet, a Long Island woman who survived breast cancer. Thanks to the senator's relentless efforts, she received insurance coverage for breast reconstructive surgery.

    Suddenly, the syndrome erupted.

    "Senator, did you call Congressman Schumer a 'putzhead'?" a reporter asked, as D'Amato's smile sagged into a stare of sick disbelief.

    Since that moment through noisy denials, angry admissions, repeated refusals to apologize, a gleeful round of Schumer attack ads and two testy television debates marked by etymological disputes over the pejorative dimensions of Yiddish insults polls have found that four out of five New Yorkers are aware that D'Amato did indeed tell a closed-door meeting of Jewish supporters last week that his opponent is a "putzhead."

    The use of putzhead, a vulgar term that literally means penis head, but in American usage means "jerk" or "fool," has tripped up D'Amato's $22 million, attack-ad-driven juggernaut of a reelection campaign. Schumer has pounced on the incident, saying that D'Amato's initial denials are typical of a senator who has told "too many lies for too long."

    A number of polls show that voters blame D'Amato more than Schumer for the take-no-prisoners tone of the race. In the crucial suburbs of New York, where D'Amato has historically run strong and needs to win by a substantial margin, two polls this week suggest that the senator's support is slipping. While the race remains a statistical dead heat, pollsters are detecting a slight momentum shift toward Schumer.

    "D'Amato is clearly on the ropes after a particularly bad week," said pollster John Zogby, whose weekend survey found that D'Amato has been hurt particularly among Jewish voters since the "putz-head" remark. "More voters continue to feel it is time for someone new in the Senate than think D'Amato deserves reelection," Zogby said.

    Like a number of verbal gaffes and ethical lapses over the 18 years that D'Amato has been in office, the "putzhead" incident highlights how politics is played in New York by the hyperactive dispenser of federal goodies and raiser of campaign money who likes to call himself Senator Pothole.

    Schumer, a nine-term House veteran who is widely regarded as the shrewdest opponent D'Amato has ever faced, has raised $13 million and is spending it on TV ads that paint the senator as a chronic embarrassment to New Yorkers.

    Over the years, D'Amato has provided his opponent with plenty of ammunition: A Senate ethics committee rebuke in 1991 for allowing his brother to use Senate stationery to write a letter to a client. A singing rendition of "Old McDonald had some pork" during a Senate floor debate in 1994. A sexually suggestive remark in that same year to GOP gubernatorial candidate Betsy McCaughey Ross that she could win New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's electoral support by "making him an offer he can't refuse." A mocking Japanese-accented imitation of Lance Ito, the judge in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, that was performed in 1995 on the Don Imus radio program.

    More than these gaffes, however, what has been a hallmark of the D'Amato years in New York is the transparent critics often say "shameless" connection between the favors that D'Amato delivers and the headline-generating thanks that he seeks in return.

    D'Amato's quid pro quo political style has been highly visible and much criticized in the homestretch of this year's poundingly negative Senate contest.

    Coming into this election, D'Amato, 61, had a great deal of remedial work to do. He is an antiabortion, anti-gun-control conservative in an abortion rights, pro-gun-control state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 3 to 2. The senator's approval ratings skidded two years ago into the low 30s, after he supported House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" and chaired an inconclusive Senate inquiry into the actions of President Clinton and his wife in the Whitewater affair.

    In his labor-intensive effort to mend his approval ratings, D'Amato has been nothing if not flexible. Adjusting his positions to polling vibes coming out of New York, he has scolded the congressional GOP leadership, saying voters don't pick Republicans "to have a revolution . . . it frightens people." He said last year the American people are "tired" of investigations into the president and his wife. This year he has steadfastly refused to venture an opinion on the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

    As centerpieces of his political rehabilitation, D'Amato has pursued two pet issues federal funds for breast cancer research and the release of stolen assets for Holocaust victims with a zeal and effectiveness unmatched by any member of Congress.

    The senator has won more than $900 million in federal money for breast cancer research since 1992, and last week he pushed through a law that requires insurance companies to pay cancer victims for breast reconstruction surgery. D'Amato also led the effort that pressured Swiss banks this year to pledge $1.25 billion for Holocaust survivors.

    Both issues resonate more in New York than any other state. Per-capita rates of breast cancer in the Long Island suburbs are the highest in the nation. There are more than three times as many Jews in New York state as in Jerusalem, and more Holocaust survivors than any place outside Israel.

    Two Sundays ago, D'Amato publicly called in his chits on the Jewish vote. He staged a news conference with Nazi concentration camp survivors in front of the Holocaust Memorial Wall in Manhattan. In his last two Senate elections, D'Amato has won about 40 percent of New York's Jewish vote, which accounts for about a fifth of turnout. Analysts says he needs to do at least that well this year to win.

    To that end, the senator sat with a look of pious humility on his face as Alice Fischer, 69, who survived the Bergen-Belsen camp, told reporters that "the Jewish community doesn't have a better friend" than D'Amato. At the same time, the senator's press aides handed out a release saying that Schumer had missed two "important" Holocaust votes.

    One of the votes was for making the Capitol Rotunda available for a Holocaust commemoration, the other was a House Banking Committee vote to establish a commission to review Holocaust claims. Neither was contested and both passed overwhelmingly, but D'Amato acted outraged by Schumer's behavior.

    "It is incredible to think that Chuck Schumer doesn't take his job seriously enough to show up to vote, especially when the issue is as important as searching for Holocaust victims' assets," D'Amato said. "And I guess he and some others would have you believe that's not important. Incredible."

    Schumer, who is Jewish and had relatives who died in the Holocaust, seized the opening. Within hours, he sent two prominent New York Jewish politicians, Rep. Jerrold L. Nadler and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, to the same Holocaust Memorial Wall. They angrily accused the senator of exploiting and trivializing the murder of 6 million Jews.

    It was two days later that a fuming D'Amato called Schumer a "putzhead" in a meeting with 40 Jewish supporters in a Park Avenue high-rise. He also mocked Nadler's girth (for which he has since apologized) by calling him "Congressman Waddler" and waddling around in a circle in front of his incredulous audience.

    A Zogby poll this week found that before D'Amato's Holocaust event Oct. 18, he had been winning a consistent 35 percent of the Jewish vote. But since then and after the "putzhead" incident the poll has detected a marked decline in Jewish support for the senator.

    No pollsters or political analysts, though, are saying publicly that D'Amato is in trouble. He is well ahead upstate, where more than a third of the electorate lives and where turnout is traditionally much higher than in New York City, which is Schumer's stronghold.

    Popular Gov. George E. Pataki (R), who is romping toward an easy reelection, has joined D'Amato this week for a 16-city statewide campaign swing. In the last week before the election, Republicans are promising an $8 million "team" blitz of TV, radio and direct-mail advertisements that combines about $6 million from D'Amato and Pataki with $2 million in state party money.

    D'Amato also has enlisted the active support of his onetime political nemesis, Giuliani. Four years ago, the Republican mayor said that "if the D'Amato crew ever get control, ethics will be smashed" in New York state.

    But for the past two years, as part of his carefully orchestrated self-rehabilitation project, D'Amato has gone out of his way to mend fences with the immensely popular mayor. On Monday morning in a deli in Queens those peace overtures paid off. Giuliani told a phalanx of television cameras that he was "wrong" in 1994 when he questioned the senator's ethics. The mayor said that D'Amato is so powerful and effective that "it makes no sense" to replace him. The senator smiled beatifically.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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