He started out campaigning upstate to two empty chairs and a microphone, and the microphone, he points out, was borrowed.
Or he'd make the newspapers not because -- in the beginning -- anyone thought this feisty archconservative supervisor from a town in Long Island had a prayer against Sen. Jacob Javits, but because this whatsisname, Alfonse D'Amato, was just so outrageous.
He debated a picture of Javits when Javits didn't show. He made blunt and undiplomatic cracks about Javits' age and health. He insisted, when pressed on this, that there was nothing wrong in these attacks. "You take a look at the guy, and tell me if he's gonna last six more years," he said.
That he could win against Javits, considered by many to be the premier Republican in the state, seemed unthinkable -- even to D'Amato's father and to his local political mentor, both of whom counseled him not to run. ("Run?" said D'Amato's schoolteacher father. "You should run for psychiatrist!")
But Tuesday night, the unthinkable happened -- Al D'Amato, who had never even held statewide office, handed Jacob Javits the first defeat in his 32-year political career, winning 56 percent of the votes to Javits' 44 percent and becoming the official Republican candidate for Senate.
And when he arrived in a Manhattan hotel today for his victory morning press conference, he found not two empty chairs and a microphone but a crush of reporters. Plainly delighted, he flashed a victory sign and broke into an uninhibited grin. "I'm totally unaccustomed to this kind of reception," he said.
He reiterated his campaign message, saying he would work for "the working person", and would establish "real jobs" in New York state, not "government give-away jobs at the end of a rake." But the 43-year-old D'Amato also took the opportunity to needle Javits once again, because, after all, he will face him this November, running as the Liberal Party candidate in the Senate general election.
"I believe Javits is a formidable opponent," said D'Amato, "but as I predicted earlier, he's really a liberal and he's much more comfortable with the liberal ideal . . . Now he will be unshackled . . . He will not have to walk that very careful line attempting to convince people that he is Republican . . . With John Anderson he will be able to articulate a somewhat different philosophy than that which I believe represents not only the mainstream of the Republican Party, but the John Q. Citizens of this state."
It is an attack which D'Amato leveled at Javits repeatedly throughout the Senate primary race: that he was more liberal than many Democrats. It is certainly an attack which could never be used against D'Amato, who, with the backing of both the Conservative and Right-to-Life parties, is one of the more right-wing New York politicians to lately gain nationwide prominence, in an indication of the growing strength of the conservatives in this state.
Javits made a chin-up return to the Senate today and vowed to reporters that will wage a "vigorous and effective" campaign for reelection this fall as the Liberal Party nominee.
Greeted warmly by Democratic as well as Republican colleagues on the Senate floor, Javits told reporters he thought it "very likely that some GOP senators would go to New York to campaign on his behalf even though he lost the pary's nomination.
If reelected, he would remain a Republican in the Senate, Javits told reporters. He refused to speculate about whether D'Amato's nomination was a step toward conservative control of the New York GOP, but said it would be a "lethal blow" to the party if such a takeover occurred.
Supervisor of the Long Island town of Hempstead (with a population of 800,000, it is not a small town), D'Amato and Javits disagreed on practically everything throughout their primary race.
While Javits, a liberal, favored the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, D'Amato opposed those and favored the calling of a constitutional convention for the purpose of banning abortion. While Javits called for a national health care program, D'Amato -- who frequently terms New York "the Cadillac of welfare states" -- favored insurance only for catastrophic illness. While Javits supported the strategic arms limitation treaty, calling it critical, D'Amato opposed it.
Neither did D'Amato show any liberal leanings off the campaign trail. When the Justice Department ordered that the Nassau County police department had to relax its admission requirements until 25 percent of the force was female and 20 percent minority, he staunchly refused. He had nothing against women, he insisted -- he just opposed unfair quota systems.
His personal style, casual, outspoken, given to the vernacular, contrasted with Javits' aloof, intellectual style, as well. "Pasta versus pate," one liberal columnist wrote of them. But there was one similarity: Both grew up poor. Javits is the son of immigrant parents on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; D'Amato is the son of a man who could not speak English until he reached elementary school. D'Amato, growing up, had to hitchhike the 13 miles to high school, went through college working as a custodian and through Syracuse Law School on an athletic scholarship. He still bears psychological scars from being turned down by prestigious Wall Street firms after graduation -- because, he believes, of his Italian background.
As a self-made man, D'Amato sees America as a land of limitless opportunity. Ask him who he is and he'll define himself according to his origins and his struggle. "I'm a product of the American system. "I'm what this country is all about, I'm a ghetto kid," he said.
He faces, despite his primary victory, a tough race against not only Javits, but liberal Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who won a four-way race Tuesday in the Democratic primary. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had been planning to back Jacob Javits, has not yet decided whether it will back D'Amato, even thought he is the official Republican candidate. "Up until last night I thought our best chance of obtaining that seat was for Jack Javits to be renominated," Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) told reporters. "the Primary results will make us carefully evaluate the entire race. Until we do that it will be impossible for me to say to what extent we are going to do what."
Nonetheless, D'Amato was confident. He agrees with political observers who say that a race between two liberals, Javits and Holtzman, might divide the liberal vote and clear the field for D'Amato.
He savors the idea. "Wouldn't I be a refreshing change?"