Four construction workers with blue hardhats were ready with catcalls and neatly painted "Does Carey Care?" placards when the governor walked by.
"Who put you up to this?" the governor snapped. "You've got 60,000 more jobs in this area than you did before I became governor. Who put you up to this anyway?"
It was a short, inconsequential encounter, a minor flareup, barely breaking Gov. Hugh Carey's stride as he toured the Hempstead resource recovery plant under construction here.
But the reaction was classic Carey - emotional, combative and overly defensive. It's perhaps understandable, for almost everywhere he turns these days it seems someone is nipping at Hugh Carey's heels.
His lieutenant governor, Mary Anne Krupsak, has turned on him, and is trying to take his job. So is another fellow Democrat and former supporter from his hometown of Brooklyn, state Sen. Jeremiah Bloom.And Republicans are making political hay running around the state accusing him of being soft on crime.
It is a heck of a predicament for a politician who just four years ago won office with the largest majority in state history and claims to have saved New York City from bankruptcy almost single-handed.
"I'm in a fight and I know it," Carey said in an interview last week. "But I've been in tough fights before and I've come out on top."
Krupsak is the most intriguing character in the melodrama that has engulfed Carey these last six weeks. Just 12 before she and the governor were to announce their joint candidacies for reelection she unleashed a blistering attack, saying she couldn't bear to be on the same ticket with him.
Carey, she charged, had ignored her and most other state Democrats for 3 1/2 years and had been unwilling "to fulfill his obligations" as governor.
Republicans were ecstatic. An incumbent governor under attack in his own primary: it was almost a dream come true.
"It has to hurt Carey," Republican gubernatorial nominee Perry Duryea, state assembly minority leader, declared in an interview. "It will use up his time and resources. She'll keep him on the run until September."
Republicans, who nominated Duryea at a convention last month, are banking that the Democrats' intraparty battle will fuel anti-Carey feelings between now and the Sept. 12 primary. Duryea's man in charge of image-making, John Deardourff, says his initial surveys indicate such feelings are already so strong that Duryea is the choice of some people who don't even know who the Republican candidate is.
To upset Carey, who is still considered the frontrunner for renomination, Krupsak would have to build a coalition of the left, feminist activists and upstate Democrats dissatisfied with the governor.
Her campaign is off to a shaky start, and is plagued with organizational problems.
She has attracted number of activists from the campaigns of former representative Bella Abzug to her camp. But several key women office-holders who might be expected to support the candidacy of a female gubernatorial candidate are sticking with Carey, whom they consider strong on women's issues.
Some regard her eleventh-hour entry into the race as an impulsive act of personal pique, and an embarrassment to the women's movement.
"What she did was set back the women's movement 10 years," says state Sen. Linda Winikow, who considers herself a personal friend of Krupsak. "My constituents are coming to me and saying, 'She's shown that you women don't belong in government. You're too emotional. You're too unstable.
"By her actions, she's given food to those who have always felt women don't belong in politics."
These anti-Krupsak feelings are compounded by Carey's appointment of eight women to cabinet-level jobs and his support of two issues vital to many activist women: the Equal Rights Amendment and Medicaid funding for abortions.
"I have trouble understanding why she's doing this," says New York City Council President Carol Bellamy. "Where are the issues?"
It was opposition from Bellamy, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and New York Mayor Ed Koch that narrowly blocked an attempt to Krupsak supporters to have the liberal Democratic Coalition in New York City rescind its endorsement of Carey. That would have been a much needed psychological victory.
Krupsak, an intense 46-year-old lawyer and former state senator, argues that the same officeholders who oppose her this year also tried to dissuade her from running lieutenant governor four years ago.
Her decision to challenge Carey was an "evolutionary one," made as a matter of principle only after "I tried to work from inside," she said in an interview.
She said she isn't running against her own record challenging Carey. She claimed there are substantive issues of disagreement. For instance, she opposes construction of the controversial Westway Highway project; Carey favors it. She favors legalizing the anti-cancer drug Laetrile, while Carey opposes it.
The two, however, agree on what is thought to be the most emotionally charged issue in the state. They oppose restoration of the death penalty. The third Democratic candidate, state Sen. Bloom, supports it, as does Republican candidate Duryea.
Carey, 59, who is going into the campaign with a hugh financial war-chest and the services of winning media adviser David Garth, has tried to counter the charges that he is soft on crime by calling a special session of the legislature to enact a crime package.
A far more elusive issue is Carey's brooding, sometimes erratic, personality. It yoyos between charming, quickwitted brilliance and flashes of outrage.
Party regulars complain he is indifferent to party affairs. His opponents claim he is a loner who consults with only a tiny circle of advisers.
"Carey has been an ineffectual governor." Duryea said in an interview. "There's feeling that he doesn't care about the job."
Carey's answer is that he has been too busy administering the affairs of state to spend time selling his record.
"When I was fighting to save New York City and to get this state's economy back on track, I didn't have time to go on the rubber chicken circuit or go to clambakes," he said here the other day.
"Frankly, I agree with what everyone's saying: that I'm a good governor and a bad politician."