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End Games

Will Bill pull Hill across the finish line first? Will Rick spin the straw of her health-care fiasco into the gold of victory? And is there life after The Race?

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Crunch time. Eight days until the vote as this hits the stands. The candidates are doing their thing, but what's compelling about a campaign's final week is the Chaos Theory effect -- the way unexpected events can intrude on a pol's best-laid plans, take over the news cycle, shift voting blocs, and create the margin between victory and defeat. That said, a few possible scenarios for the campaign's final week:

The Hamas Scenario. As I write, it appears that Hillary Clinton may have weathered the worst of this potential catastrophe, which started when the Daily News reported last Wednesday that she'd attended a fund-raiser hosted by an American Muslim group. She returned the dough, which slowed the bleeding, and she's awfully lucky that the Hamas sympathizer who gave her money also donated to W. But depending on how Rick Lazio played this one and the next round of polls, it could hurt her. Advantage: Lazio.

The Zuckerman Scenario. The Post is the most anti-Clinton paper in town, right? Wrong. Lately, that distinction belongs to the News, whose editorial page has been hammering Hillary nonstop since early September on soft money, the Lincoln Bedroom, and now the Muslim fund-raiser. (The same folks endorsed Jon Corzine last week in New Jersey's Senate race, which I guess proves that shoving an ungodly pile of lucre into a campaign is forgivable as long as it's your own.) Which way will News publisher Mort Zuckerman go in this race? We may know by the time you read this, but the News has a courageous history of fence-sitting until the last possible moment. If the paper's past few weeks are any indication, though . . . Advantage: Lazio.

The Post/Zogby Scenario. The Post, meanwhile, has mostly tuned Lazio out to concentrate on W. Still, there's probably some fight in old Rupert yet. I'd bet on a "tracking poll" by John Zogby showing Ricky surging! in the campaign's final days, just as his 1998 polls showed Al D'Amato ahead of Chuck Schumer two days before an election Schumer won by nine points. Advantage: Lazio.

The Bill Scenario. Some will always hate him, and the press will never stop being moralistic harpies about the marriage. But New York remains one of the most potus-friendly jurisdictions in America. Put the man in a black church, the heavens open. Put him anywhere, and compared with other pols, he's Gershwin, Picasso, Rilke. Two or three well-chosen stops, and it's . . . Advantage: Clinton.

Hillary Clinton has run the sort of campaign people are always telling pollsters they want.

The "Can This Country Really Elect George W. Bush President?" Scenario. The presidential result is a foregone conclusion in New York. But that doesn't prevent the psychology of the nip-and-tuck national race from invading our turf. Combine this with a little Nader fall-off, which is natural for third-party candidates in an election's closing days, and you have a comfortable Gore margin. If it's a million votes, that's 3.5 million to 2.5 million (assuming around 6 million voters). So for Rick to win, nearly one out of every three Gore voters would have to switch to Lazio. Advantage: Clinton.

The "You've Underestimated Us Again, White Man" Scenario. Before every Election Day, virtually every white commentator says: "Blacks have no motivation to vote in this election." Then, in every election of the nineties save 1994, black turnout is higher than expected. Especially so in 1998, when black turnout in New York was huge. That was not a pro-Schumer turnout; it was a pro-Clinton, anti-impeachment vote. One has only to hear a couple of black ministers talk about Hillary to see that maybe black voters do have a reason to vote, and the reason is her. Advantage: Clinton.

The "I Just Can't Do It" Scenario. Black candidates always need to be a few points ahead in the pre-Election Day polls, because a certain number of white voters tell pollsters they'll vote for a black candidate but won't. Hillary may face a similar phenomenon. People will walk into the polling booth and look up there and see her name -- at that instant, what will flash into their minds? The average person might make about eight likely associations, and most of them aren't positive. The Democratic primary may have taken care of some of this. I have one friend who resented Hillary's candidacy. She voted against her in the primary and says that vote got it out of her system and she's now prepared to pull the Clinton lever. On the other hand, primary turnout was awfully low. Advantage: Lazio.

The "God Wants Hillary" Scenario. Picture, on Election Day, a massive thunderstorm across every section of the state north of Albany, save Democratic Erie County, at whose border the sunshine miraculously rules. Up there, remember, people have to drive to the polls, sometimes several miles. Who could bother? Advantage: Clinton.

The "God Wants Rick" Scenario. Of course, it could rain in the city and spare the north country. Is it worse, when it's raining, to have to drive to the polls or walk to them? Advantage: Lazio.

And finally, the "Improbable As It May Seem, People Actually Do End Up Voting on the Issues" Scenario. Hillary Clinton has asked no one to vote for her because of her smile or her winning personality. She has learned, after all this time, to navigate New York's serpentine waters with only passable adroitness. Parochialists will never accept her. She has no record per se, and she has ducked and covered on a major question or two (e.g., Social Security).

But she has run the sort of campaign people are always telling pollsters they want -- issue-oriented, reasonably specific on most matters, and, where negative, never personal or irrelevant. Her final week as candidate will surely hold one of the above surprises or maybe some others, but she and her team, especially since August, have done a good job of keeping to the message and minimizing the soap opera. Given the white heat in which this race started those many months ago, and the frequent flare-ups ever since, that's no mean achievement, and it may prove advantage enough.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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