Arizona Sen. John McCain has a problem in the March 7 New York Republican primary: He may not be on the ballot in all 31 of the state's congressional districts.

Because of the state GOP's byzantine primary system, candidates must collect signatures from 1,000--or 0.5 percent--of Republicans in each district. That effectively means running 31 separate petition drives. "We have a more odious set of rules than the Democrats," said Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, who is McCain's state chairman.

Depending on final tabulations, the McCain troops say they've collected enough signatures in 25 or 26 districts. Molinari said volunteers had the most difficulty meeting the threshold in parts of upstate New York.

McCain's campaign filed a federal suit against the state party arguing that the complicated rules make it virtually impossible for anyone but the party's handpicked candidate to qualify.

Four years ago, Republican Steve Forbes successfully sued to get on the New York ballot. But it cost him about $1.8 million. This year, the Forbes camp said it spent about $750,000 to file its petitions. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has also collected enough signatures to be on the ballot statewide.

Gore Defends Key Aide

Vice President Gore defended his campaign manager yesterday, saying he agreed with Donna Brazile's assessment that the Republican Party has not promoted policies that benefit African Americans. But he also did a little damage control.

"General [Colin] Powell is a great hero who I admire greatly," Gore said campaigning in Iowa. "However, having General Powell and Congressman [J.C.] Watts in the Republican Party is, in fact, not a substitute for an agenda that supports all of our people, including African Americans."

In an interview this week, Brazile had said: "Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no programs, no policies. They play that game because they have no love and no joy. They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."

Powell sent a letter of complaint to Gore and urged him to stop "playing the race card."

Despite his defense of Brazile, Gore told reporters that he called Powell last night and "I reaffirmed my total respect and regard for him." He ducked a question about whether he apologized for Brazile's comment or whether Powell deserved an apology.

Brazile, the first African American woman to run a major-party presidential campaign, also telephoned Powell and Watts.

Kerrey's Plans

Is Sen. Bob Kerrey canceling plans to run for reelection next year?

That was the question floating around yesterday, as the Nebraska Democrat and onetime presidential hopeful mused publicly about casting off the confines of Capitol Hill to become president of the New School University in New York.

"I'm very happy doing what I'm doing, but this offer unexpectedly came my way," Kerrey said after the New York Daily News disclosed that the New School had offered him a job. "It provoked interest that surprised me and caused me to do a little more thinking. . . . Do I want to continue to serve in the Senate from age 57 to 63?"

A Kerrey departure would deal a sharp blow to the Democrats' chances of taking back the Senate, where Republicans hold a 55-45 majority. Kerrey is considered a lock for reelection, but with no Kerrey, both parties recognize the GOP would have an excellent shot at picking up the seat.

Ventura and Trump

They were quite the couple: With Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura by his side, Donald Trump yesterday told a rally in a Minneapolis suburb that there is a "very good possibility" he will announce a $100 million campaign for the Reform Party presidential nomination.

(In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump said only "death" would stop him from running.)

While Ventura said endorsing Trump now would "put the cart before the horse," he has made clear his opposition to Patrick J. Buchanan, who is seeking the party's nomination.

Asked yesterday whether he expected Ventura to support Trump, Buchanan quipped: "He's certainly not leaning toward me."

Trump, by the way, was the keynote speaker last night at a $100-per-person fund-raiser for the Jesse Ventura Volunteer Committee.

Staff writer Ben White contributed to this report.