- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

NEW YORK With only two weeks until the Democratic primary election, gubernatorial candidate Andrew M. Cuomo, once considered unbeatable, is trailing opponent state Comptroller H. Carl McCall in both public polls and private predictions.
This perception is a far cry from the consensus early this summer when Mr. Cuomo, who served as secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration, was running 10 to 15 points ahead of the veteran state legislator in the race to challenge Republican Gov. George E. Pataki in November.
"Cuomo had name recognition but he has yet to close the sale," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "The edge is clearly McCall, but it's still very volatile."
Recent polls, including one last week by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, have Mr. McCall ahead by as much as 16 points, when a sample of likely voters includes whom they are leaning toward.
The volatility of the campaign was demonstrated this week by reports that Mr. McCall's running mate for lieutenant governor, multimillionaire Dennis Mehiel, fathered two children by two different women while married to his first wife.
Although Mr. Mehiel, 60, has acknowledged this, it seemed clear to political insiders that the Cuomo campaign had leaked this potential political time bomb. Mr. Cuomo's aides have branded the charge an "outrageous diversion attempt."
This latest brouhaha will take Mr. McCall "off message" for a few days, said veteran political observers, especially because the comptroller has begun appearing in political TV ads with Mr. Mehiel. But, they add, in the post-Clinton era it is unlikely to be a defining issue in the race.
As in so many New York elections, race is likely to be a factor in the campaign. The black vote is expected to count for 10 percent of the votes cast in the Sept. 10 primary.
Mr. McCall, who is black, has sought to balance his ticket with Mr. Mehiel, who is white, just as Mr. Cuomo has tried to balance his with a black running mate, Charlie King.
"I worship as a Roman Catholic, but I want you to know that I feel like a Baptist," Mr. Cuomo said Sunday while campaigning in a Harlem church.
Day-to-day, the campaign has not exactly caught fire with New Yorkers, especially because primary voters are traditionally die-hard party ideologues. On most issues, both candidates agree. They support legally recognized same-sex unions, solidarity with Israel and redeveloping lower Manhattan.
They oppose the death penalty. Borrowing a page from New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign book, both men blame the governor, who is seeking a third term, for upstate New York's anemic economy.
Mr. Pataki is fortified by a sizeable war chest and approval ratings as high as 70 percent. Moreover, the governor has moved to the political center, picking up endorsements among such traditional Democratic voting blocs as labor unions and Hispanics.
Anticipating this electoral advantage, veteran Democratic insiders have decided that Mr. McCall will fare far better against the popular governor.
Mr. Cuomo's problems surfaced at the start of the campaign when he disparaged Mr. Pataki's handling of the World Trade Center attacks by saying that former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was a hero in the aftermath, and that the governor "held the leader's coat."
His father, former Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, 70, rode to the rescue last weekend in a New York Post interview conceding that his son had made a "political mistake," but that "he didn't mean it the way it came across."
The local news media also point to a Cuomo defeat. Political columnist Michael Tomasky, writing in this week's edition of New York Magazine, said that his canvass of insiders indicates a McCall win.
A "fairly solid consensus has developed among insiders that McCall will probably win this primary," Mr. Tomasky said. Of Mr. Cuomo, he added, "There's the whole too aggressive, too ambitious, young-fellow-in-a-hurry thing."

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