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Deep Impact

That deadly asteroid homing in on Geraldine Ferraro's campaign is Charles Schumer, who has the record and now the money to win the primary and take on Al D'Amato.

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If you still think Gerry Ferraro is walking away with the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, consider three pieces of recent evidence. The first sign that things were getting interesting came July 12 in Robert Novak's inside-dope column in the Post. Alfonse D'Amato, Novak wrote, was "telling close personal friends" that Mark Green would explode out of the pack and win the September 15 primary. The junior senator further believed that Geraldine Ferraro would be his toughest foe, and Congressman Chuck Schumer his weakest.

Needless to say, D'Amato's spin to the friendly Novak means that the opposite of everything he said is true, which confirms what most people following this race closely believe. D'Amato would prefer running against Green; he isn't that worried about Ferraro either; and he recognizes that Schumer in fact would be his toughest opponent. (Note to the Fonz: Your M.O. is stale. Next time, try telling your scriveners the truth; that'll really throw people off the scent.)

Exhibit B was delivered last week when Quinnipiac College released a poll showing Ferraro at 39 percent, Schumer at 28, and Green at 24. This sounds like just another "Ferraro leads" poll until you consider that, only a month ago, this same organization had Ferraro at 46, Green at 23, and Schumer at 19. Measuring Ferraro vis-à-vis Schumer, in other words, we see a sixteen-point swing (and the current poll is of likely voters, making it presumably more reliable). In March, Ferraro was at 50 and Schumer at 15. Furthermore, a source working in another statewide race confirms the existence of a private poll, targeted specifically at so-called "prime voters," that reduces Ferraro's lead over Schumer to single digits. Political writers pay too much heed to polls, of course, but these two confirm what everyone watching has been feeling for a few days now: This race is tightening.

Finally, our third piece of evidence: The candidates' most recent financial filings. It has become a given in this race that, each filing period, Green lags behind the other two because he lacks Schumer's PAC connections and Ferraro's glitz, but that this is all right because Green, our local Nader, could win this primary not with the wallet but with the sort of luck, pluck, and drive that has characterized his chronically underfunded career. So it came as a surprise to find that, with Green's having collected $568,000 this period ($2.5 million total) and Ferraro $701,500, the two of them now have the same amount of cash on hand, around $1.1 million. Ferraro's cup-rattling has yielded her just over $2 million since she announced her candidacy in January. She said then that she would need to raise $5 million to $6 million. That figure was itself one of those lowering-expectations ploys -- since D'Amato will spend three or four times that, it's unlikely that $5 million could produce victory -- but now it appears she's well off the pace to achieve even that much. Schumer drank in another casual mil, bringing his total raised to $12 million and putting his cash-on-hand figure at a gaudy (as the sportswriters say) $7.2 million.

Campaigns have their phases, and this one will probably have three. Phase I was Gerry's phase. It started in January, when Ferraro announced to the blare of history's trumpets that she'd give it one more go. She got hammered in the press for having no motive save vengeance, but with 35-point leads in the polls, she could afford to laugh off a few cranky columnists. April's conventional wisdom, for example, was that she was running a lousy campaign but that it wouldn't matter; her celebrity would carry the day.

Well, friends, Phase I is over. "My sense is that Gerry's in free-fall," says a prominent elected Democrat who hasn't endorsed anyone in this race (how freely they speak on background, those prominent elected Democrats!): "She just never capitalized on her beginnings. There she was, with all that press and attention, and she never took advantage of it, never gave a rationale for her candidacy."

You hear this line a lot, that she has no rationale. But is it really a fair shot? Well, yes. Think of it this way. In fourteen years -- that's a long time; world fascism was vanquished in six -- she has done one political thing in New York, which was to run a losing race for the Senate in 1992. She has been a private lawyer and a television host. It's her right, of course, to have done so. But it means that she has not been on the scene in any meaningful way. She did very little work, for example, for other Democrats like David Dinkins. She's done little to identify herself with issues, or an issue. She might say she couldn't be too openly partisan about things because of her Crossfire role, but that in itself reflects a choice she made: television and money over local political groundwork. Schumer and Green, meanwhile, have been on the scene to the point of oppression. You can't yank either one away from a news camera, can't avoid their phone calls or calls from their aides; and if you're an attentive voter, you can name three or four things each has done off the top of your head. They've been engaged over the long haul in a way Ferraro just hasn't. She should have realized this and rushed out a flurry of proposals right off the bat, given a couple of very public platform addresses, that sort of thing. Instead, she said, I've got to go raise money now, boys, and by the way, you're not allowed to discuss me while I'm doing it.

So it's no surprise that her polling slip is showing, and it's no surprise that Schumer is gaining ground. The experts have been saying since January that Schumer had to show something by midsummer not to be written off. So here it is midsummer, and he's showing it. His bland but solidly biographical ads have been on the air for four or five weeks now, and he swears that he's noticing more reaction on the hustings. Virtually every insider believes what D'Amato fears: that Schumer, the only candidate with both the record and the money to give D'Amato fits, will win this primary and give D'Amato everything he can handle. Indeed, if Schumer should be worried about anything, it's the wisdom of the experts.

And don't count Green out. If we've just entered Phase II of this race, then the third and final phase will arrive ten to fourteen days before the September 15 primary, when probably one quarter of the voters, maybe more, will finally make up their minds. Green will run his commercials then, and count on the favorable press he has a knack of getting.

Green and Schumer are savvy pols, and they will run smart campaigns. The outstanding question is whether Ferraro has any ideas about how to match them. "There was a recognition that things were not going as well as they should have," says her spokesman, Stephen Gaskill. "Problems were identified, and changes were made." He means that the campaign manager left. But when candidates nudge out campaign managers, it's usually not the campaign manager who was the problem. People may glow and whisper when Ferraro walks into a room, but people glow and whisper when Tama Janowitz walks into a room. Glowing and whispering about someone and voting for her are very different things. This isn't celebrity table tennis. But it is getting to be a horse race.


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