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Out of Comptroller?

Carl McCall has stellar endorsements and an enviable war chest. So why does his campaign for governor feel like it's losing momentum?

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Three months ago -- heck, three weeks ago -- if you'd asked an insider to handicap next year's Democratic primary for governor, your insider would have said one word: McCall. State Comptroller Carl McCall, that is; he was on cruise-control after a crushing defeat of some expendable Republican yearling to win re-election in 1998, and his path to the 2002 nomination was uncluttered and uncomplicated.

Your insider would have recalled to you the scene at last May's state convention in Albany, where 11,500 gathered to nominate Hillary for Senate. McCall's ovation was more thunderous even than hers. He would have chuckled as he talked about the after-parties that night, competing ones hosted by McCall and his gubernatorial rival, Andrew Cuomo, where the boisterous line to get into McCall's soirée snaked up a spiral staircase in the Omni Hotel, while Cuomo's, on a boat docked in the Hudson, couldn't draw flies. This, three weeks ago, would have been your answer.

Now ask the same insider the same question, and he'll wonder whether McCall will make the race. How does someone go from "He's inevitable" to "He may not run" in three weeks' time?

Here, from the nuts-and-bolts department, is how:

How does someone go from "He's inevitable" to "He may not run" in three weeks' time?

  • March 22: The Daily News reports that McCall's 37-year-old daughter, Marci, is arrested for allegedly writing thousands of dollars' worth of bad checks on her corporate expense account.

  • March 24: At an upstate meeting of the Democratic Rural Conference, where most attendees support McCall coming in, it's Cuomo who gives the speech that rouses the audience.

  • March 27: News breaks that David Axelrod, the Chicago-based political consultant who has worked with McCall for eight years, is leaving McCall's side (or being pushed away, depending on the source) because the comptroller, as Axelrod tells the press with unusual frankness, has dithered in putting a team together.

  • April 4: The Village Voice's Tom Robbins reports that McCall's wife, Joyce Brown, the president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, has spent $529,000 in public money refurbishing her rent-free FIT apartment. The $8,000 worth of kitchen equipment, which needs to be of commercial quality since fund-raising events are catered there, seems reasonable; the $20,500 in draperies for the master bedroom, somewhat less so.

Jab, jab, hook, uppercut. Granted, we're seventeen months away from the day when McCall and Cuomo will have their fate decided by the voters. These shots, and for that matter four more like them, are easily survivable in that amount of time, and McCall, who has endorsements from nearly 500 state Democrats of high station and low, is still in a strong position. But some people supporting him, like two I spoke with last Tuesday morning, are suddenly a little nervous. "He's got to stop the rumors that he won't see it all the way," one told me. "He doesn't have a team in place, and people wonder what's going on."

This race is the moment that Carl McCall -- industrious, diligent, highly credentialed, and, as far as we know, completely honest -- has spent a patient quarter-century in politics building toward. Now that he's here, he's staring at three complicating factors.

The first is that we in the press somehow decided that the gubernatorial race started the morning after Hillary won. Much has been made of the emergence, what with all the cable chatter and the Internet, of the 24-hour news cycle. But the constant information stream has also spawned, paradoxically enough, what we might call the 24-month news cycle: All the new airtime and column inches and the rest mean the press has a lot of time and space to fill, so we mostly fill it musing about elections. As recently as a decade ago, an election cycle (presidential races excepted) lasted ten months, maybe a year. Now it's twice that. Early cuts and scrapes that would have been ignored a few years ago are now duly registered and, by insiders at least, remembered. Joyce Brown, holder of a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a drop-dead-gorgeous woman (hey, I'm sorry, but you know it matters), was an asset fully capable of going head-to-head with Cuomo's glammy wife, Kerry Kennedy. Now that's a less even matchup.

Factor two is the opposition. Andrew Cuomo has never won an election, whereas McCall has won five of them going back to 1974. Compared with McCall's 500 endorsers, Cuomo has so far announced exactly zero. But insiders know: The Cuomos play for keeps. P.R. guru Dan Klores and his associates -- John Marino, who headed the state Democratic Party when Mario was governor, and Peter Ragone, who ran the West Coast for Al Gore last year -- have muscle and know how to use it (Klores's offices constitute a unique electoral nerve center this year: Down the hall from the aforementioned sits Joe DePlasco, the spokesman for Democratic mayoral front-runner Mark Green). Andrew himself developed a reputation for hardball when he ran his father's first campaign, telling startled operatives far older than he (at 23) where to stuff it. Not many people in New York politics like Andrew Cuomo. But they don't doubt his intelligence or, more to the point, his ambition.

Which brings us to the third factor. People do doubt McCall's ambition. Many New York Democrats wanted him to run for governor in 1998; he demurred. When Pat Moynihan announced his retirement, the generally accepted idea was that McCall would try for Moynihan's Senate seat in 2000; he took a pass again. Having twice refused the crown, he came to be viewed as lacking the stomach for a fifteen-rounder.

"Maybe people have that perception because of the past," he acknowledges, "but I have made a serious effort to overcome that. What people should see this time is that I have formally announced, 21 months before Election Day, that I'm raising money nearly $3 million, and that I've got almost 500 supporters onboard." He points to a breakfast meeting he had with legislative supporters on April 3 at which not a negative word was heard. "The one group of people who are not shy about telling you when they think you're screwing up are legislators," says Assemblyman Denny Farrell, a McCall confidant who was at the meeting. "And not one person made any such complaints."

McCall says he plans on assembling a team of advisers in "the next month or so." Some of those close to him, sources say, are still working to woo Axelrod back in. Axelrod sounds like he'll take this seriously only when he hears from McCall himself. "I'm always willing to talk," he says, "but I sort of discount it."

But even more than a good team, McCall needs to breathe a little fire. "When we get down to operating," he vows, "we're going to have a team that's classy, that's smart, and that does what it needs to do to win. And we're going to win. And that means you take no prisoners." It sounds good; now he has to make his fans believe it.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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