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Who's Off First

Alan Hevesi beat the pack to declare his candidacy for mayor. But could he ever be pronounced the winner when many can't pronounce his name?

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The formal announcement, once a signal event in any campaign that ensured at least a day of favorable coverage, has undergone some reexamination in our age of spin, backspin, and counter-spin. Rudy Giuliani never cared much for the practice; people know who I am, he'd say, and obviously they know I'm running, because why else would I be bouncing around the city scarfing down knishes? At the other extreme, Hillary Clinton last year held one of DeMilleian proportions, with everyone (save her immediate family, which happened to include the president of the United States) from Pat Moynihan to an Ithaca high-schooler offering testimonials.

The media's verdict? Rudy was right. Everyone did indeed know he was running, until of course he wasn't; and the festival of Hillary, which mostly invited catty press commentary about her posters and her salad-making abilities, was judged something of a dud. The formal announcement has come to feel like something out of a badly written political TV movie, like a politician's saying, "I'm glad you asked me that."

So why did Comptroller Alan Hevesi decide to become the first mayoral candidate to submit to the ritual, which he did last Tuesday afternoon in a cleverly too-small (and therefore overflowing) ballroom at the Sheraton? Tradition-bound responses usually arise from traditional problems, and Hevesi's problem is as old as democracy itself. In a multi-candidate field, somebody has to be in last place. This year, that happens to be him.

And so last week he made his move. A press conference Sunday about nursing-home funding. The leak last Monday evening, right around the dailies' deadline time, that he would announce, and then the announcement itself, ensuring that the event made the papers not once but twice. A major education speech last Wednesday, at which teachers' union president Randi Weingarten happened to be in attendance, saying very nice things about the plan. And finally, the first TV spots of the campaign, unveiled by his consultant, Hank Morris, late last week. Five days of mostly positive stories. So he's taxied away from the gate; can he achieve liftoff?

So far, about half of the city, according to polls, doesn't know who Hevesi is. His physical presence, aside from his height, isn't particularly striking. Though handsome enough, he's one of those guys who look like a lot of guys, and I suspect the average citizen has to see him a few times to place him. Even his name is open to interpretation (it's HEH-vuh-see), and his aides go so far as to suggest that one reason he's registering poorly in polls right now may be that the lackadaisical undergraduates who actually do the telephoning for these polls are mispronouncing his name half the time. I've been a poll respondent, and, believe me, this is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

So what's the battle plan? Patience, says Hank Morris. "He's the class of the field," Morris says. "He's the only one with fiscal and legislative experience. A leader on abortion rights and gay rights. Passed 108 laws. It's a story that's just waiting to be told, and we're going to tell it."

New York political history is strewn with the corpses of candidates who were front-runners when the forsythia started blooming, and it's a history that Morris knows particularly well. In 1993, Hevesi challenged incumbent comptroller Liz Holtzman. As late as June of that year, Hevesi registered at 4 percent in one poll; he finished first among three candidates in the September primary and then clubbed Holtzman in a runoff. In the spring of 1998, another Morris client named Chuck Schumer was running third behind Geraldine Ferraro and Mark Green. You know what happened there.

"Hevesi can take off," says consultant Norman Adler, who doesn't have a horse in this race, "and the reason is that there are no planes flying. Forty percent of the electorate doesn't know who's running. And of the other 60 percent, I'd say a vast majority could move. Early polls remind me of TV psychics. They ought to put for entertainment value only across the bottom."

Adler's right. Forget the polls you've seen and the polls you will see in the next three months and remember this one. A Times exit poll from that '98 Senate primary showed that 39 percent of voters settled on a candidate in the final week of the race. Most of them rushed to Schumer, who by then had the smell of victory about him. This year, the Democratic primary is September 11. You can start watching in late August.

However, that doesn't change the fact that a few hundred of us are already watching, and since we're the few hundred who decide who's up, down, in, and out, Hevesi will need a breakout moment or two. Insiders will sniff if he doesn't inch up in the next round of polling. Weingarten is said to want to endorse him, which would be a nice morale boost if it happened.

He needs, most of all, to sell his angle. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer has introduced the expression Rudy-lite into the campaign, by way of insisting that he's not. Hevesi is running as Ferrer's exact opposite. He and Morris are gambling that Rudy-lite is exactly what voters want. There is a base to support both arguments, and then there are voters in-between who go back and forth on the question. The candidate who closes the deal with the last group is the one who will win, and right now that's neither Hevesi nor Ferrer but Mark Green, who has straddled the two sides of the post-Rudy fence most adroitly so far.

Morris has completed Hail Marys before. Of course, it bears remembering that in 1993, Hevesi benefited from the fact that Holtzman was hit with the only scandal of her career, and it crescendoed exactly as the primary approached. If that hadn't happened, Hevesi would not have defeated her. And with regard to the Schumer miracle of 1998, let's just say that $8.2 million -- the amount Schumer spent as his opponents spent a fraction of that -- has a way of helping to make miracles happen. On the topic of money, all candidates have agreed to a $5.5 million spending cap, so no one will have an advantage there. And one doubts that Hevesi can bank on a Mark Green scandal (although Morris, who has a fondness for going negative, may try to create one). But the first order of business is to make sure voters know how to say "Hevesi."

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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