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D'Amato Has Reelection Recipe Simmering

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 22 1997; Page A01

Frank Sinatra is ill. So Congress should give him a gold medal. Got to be some votes there.

Swiss banks are hiding Nazi-era money. So make an international stink. There are three times more Jews in New York City than in Jerusalem. What can you lose, the Swiss vote?

A bottle factory upstate is going bankrupt. So fly on up to Elmira and broker a bailout. They'll owe you come Election Day.

With that day more than 21 months off, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the hyperactive Republican from a resolutely Democratic state, is cooking up another campaign. The junior senator from New York is once again serving up the special sauce he perfected two decades ago while running the Republican machine in Nassau County, Long Island. A principal ingredient is pork -- flavored with schmaltz.

Last week, D'Amato helped bail out the Anchor Glass Container Corp. of Elmira, saving 350 jobs and getting himself hailed in the local papers as a "hero." Two days later he was "thrilled and delighted" to introduce a bill to mint a medal for Sinatra. D'Amato proclaimed that Sinatra's song, "My Way," has "epitomized the spirt of this country, giving people the opportunity to do it `Their Way.' "

The senator's election sauce is shrewdly spiced with tantalizing ingredients for key voting groups. His current crusade, which gets his name in the papers and his face on television nearly every day, is skewering Swiss banks for their handling of Jewish assets from World War II.

"Should we be outraged? Absolutely! Should we be shocked? Absolutely!" he told the New York City Council last week.

Finally, of course, the reelection recipe is sweetened with great gobs of money.

The senator has already collected about $6.8 million for his own campaign larder -- more than twice as much as any other incumbent senator whose term is up in 1998. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and gatekeeper for banking law reform, D'Amato is on track to break all money-raising records for a Senate race here.

And as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which collects unlimited donations of "soft money" from donors across the country, D'Amato has funneled millions of dollars intended for Senate races to state and local candidates in New York state.

In sum, D'Amato has made himself the state's indispensable Republican, a Washington power broker to whom many of America's richest corporations pay financial obeisance and a New York overlord who dispenses both federal pork and GOP cash.

There is good reason for D'Amato's early and obsessive politicking. After a long, shrill season of tromping through the swamps of the Whitewater scandal, the senator is struggling to rinse off the partisan mud that tainted his image during televised hearings on the allegations against President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

While he chaired the Senate committee investigating the Whitewater affair in 1995 and 1996, D'Amato's approval ratings nose-dived in New York. As he conceded to a pollster friend last fall, he badly miscalculated the effect of the hearings on his popularity.

He had hoped to claim the moral high ground and wanted to gain some distance from his own ethical problems. These charges had dogged him throughout the early 1990s, as New York newspapers kept dribbling out details of the senator's murky marriage of money and politics. In 1991, the Senate ethics committee rebuked him for conducting "the business of his office in an improper and inappropriate manner."

The televised Whitewater hearings did little to redeem D'Amato's image, and he sometimes came off as a mean-spirited prosecutor. Women, in particular, perceived him as persecuting Hillary Clinton, polls showed.

"What you saw on TV was D'Amato pointing his finger at some poor schlump from Arkansas. It hurt him. So he got off it," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute.

In an interview last week, as he traveled between a morning speech in Manhattan that damned the perfidy of Swiss bankers and an afternoon meeting in Elmira that brokered the bottle factory deal, the senator reluctantly conceded that Whitewater had not worked out as he'd hoped.

"Unfortunately, some viewed it as being partisan in nature," the senator said. "I can understand that, given the propaganda that came out of the White House. They were good at it."

He was more forthcoming in admitting to mistakes in his support last year of Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole. Before the Republican primary, D'Amato tried to keep Dole's competitors off the ballot, a move widely denounced as anti-democratic.

"My zeal to deliver the delegation for him was not one of my finest moments. That was wrong. I made a mistake," he said.

To compensate for the Dole debacle and for what he blandly termed "fallout" from the Whitewater hearings, the senator said, "I am doing the work [so] that people see me in a more visible way now, as opposed to conducting hearings."

Visible work it is.

The senator, who in 1996 won a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his record on the environment, spent $2.3 million last fall to sell himself on television as an environmentalist. Much of that money came from corporate donors, especially banks, insurance companies and brokerage houses, that have business before D'Amato's banking panel.

The senator and members of his family appeared in statewide television commercials promoting a ballot measure to create a state Environmental Bond Fund. The gauzy, sun-streaked ads seemed less intended to promote the fund, which permits localities to raise money for green projects, than to sell D'Amato as a born-again lover of clean air and pristine seascapes.

The New York State Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over the ads, claiming that money raised for them -- from major corporations and wealthy individuals, many of them with business pending before the Banking Committee -- were illegal contributions to D'Amato's reelection effort. Federal law caps corporate political action committee donations to a candidate at $5,000 per election, but a number of corporations spent $25,000 each to help pay for commercials showing D'Amato running on a beach with his granddaughters.

Shortly after polls showed him trailing far behind several possible Democratic challengers, the senator astonished longtime observers last August by demanding the closure of a giant trash incinerator on Long Island. He charged that the incinerator was contributing to the area's high rate of breast cancer.

Although D'Amato had never before given any comfort to opponents of this or any other incinerator, he seized on the issue with his characteristic pit bull zeal, helping shut the facility.

For a partisan Republican pol on the ropes, the issue was a twofer. Not only did it spruce up his image among Democrats and environmentally minded Republicans, it also played to D'Amato's need to bridge what polls show is his gaping gender gap with women.

The sudden greening of D'Amato dovetailed with a charm offensive focused on New York politicians whom he had previously reviled. In November, the smiling senator was photographed upstate with his arm around then-Assistant Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, son of his longtime liberal Democratic nemesis, former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo. In December, D'Amato attended a fund-raiser to mutter sweet nothings about his longtime Republican enemy, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

This multifaceted conversion has not impressed everyone with its sincerity.

"The new D'Amato is as credible as the new Nixon. Who thinks, really, that Al D'Amato has gone from being a proud political boss to being a genuinely sweet, tolerant and progressive guy?" asked Mark Green, New York City's elected public advocate and, so far, the leading Democratic challenger for D'Amato's seat.

"This is not new. D'Amato has often been an election-cycle liberal," complained Green, who was defeated by the senator in 1986. "For three or four years, he is a nasty, bullying conservative incumbent. And then, as he approaches an election in a state with a 3 to 2 edge in Democratic voting registration, he alters postures, personalities and even votes."

Authentic or not, D'Amato's special election sauce seems to be selling. A recent poll for the New York Post and Buffalo News showed D'Amato narrowly ahead of Green and another possible challenger, Rep. Charles E. Schumer of Brooklyn. The senator has picked up 13 points from a dismal 24 percent approval rating recorded by the poll last year.

Still, D'Amato has a long way to go. The poll found that only 30 percent of those surveyed wanted him reelected to a fourth term, while 33 percent said they will vote against him.

"His numbers aren't good now. But he has performed miracles with lousy numbers before," said his pollster, John Zogby. "This is a very bright person with a kind of a rough outer coating. If I was a betting man, I would never lay down any money against him."

Without doubt, D'Amato has scored big among Jewish voters on the Swiss money issue. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said last week that "there are two American heroes on this issue: Bill Clinton and Alfonse D'Amato."

As the senator was leaving City Hall here last week, after his emotional testimony about how Swiss banks have hoodwinked Holocaust survivors, he was asked about Steinberg's statement. How did it feel to be named as a hero, along with Bill Clinton?

Surrounded by reporters and walking toward a scrum of elementary school students, D'Amato nodded stone-faced as the question was asked. He began to answer: "The administration has been very, very . . ."

Suddenly, though, D'Amato interrupted himself and decided it was time to snuggle up to the children: "How you all doing? Hi. How are you all? You are something. . . . Do you like me?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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