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Circus Patakimus

Could the governor lose? Actually, yes. For one thing, owing to New York's arcane election laws, he could lose to himself. And that's only the silliest possibility in this silly political season.

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Last time out, I called this gubernatorial primary "The Seinfeld Race," meaning that since neither Democrat had exactly ignited the pilot light of the civic soul, it was a race about nothing. But I spoke too soon. Finally, the contest made the front page of one of the tabloids, commencing a new political game show, albeit one whose ratings might, on a good night, come close to Donahue's: "Love Lives of the Lieutenant Governor Candidates."

But maybe I was right after all, because even this potentially lively tale, concerning the admission by Dennis Mehiel (that's "meal" to you), Carl McCall's running mate, that he fathered two out-of-wedlock children, lost its steam faster than a Belmont long shot. It lacked the needed salaciousness, since the candidate was separated when the offspring were produced. It took the fast-thinking Stanley Aronowitz, the Green Party's candidate for governor, to keep the story alive an extra day by proclaiming proudly that he had deposited three such children on this earth, and apparently by three women, no less. Stanley is a brilliant fellow, an accomplished author with some ideas about housing and help for small farmers that deserve a hearing, but he's not exactly Justin Timberlake, so I consider this fairly impressive.

In short order, we were back to Seinfeld time. As I write, there are thirteen days, and two debates, left. But Andrew Cuomo finds himself facing an unenviable Catch-22: To make up ground and have a prayer of winning, he needs to go on the offensive against McCall; but if he really wants to exit this campaign gracefully and preserve his slim chances of running again, that is exactly the strategy he cannot pursue.

If there is a story line to this primary season, it's provided by the state's antique election law, which may have a dramatic impact on things before it's all over. Take, for example, Cuomo and the Liberal Party. Cuomo has the Liberal Party line, so even if he loses to McCall, he'll be on the November ballot. He'll face intense pressure from Lib boss Ray Harding to campaign hard enough to get 50,000 votes, which the Libs need to keep their status as an official party. But he'll be under more intense pressure from Democrats to give it up and back McCall. There's still time for Harding, labels aside, to throw his support to George Pataki, or even Tom Golisano.

And speaking of those two, their primary fight, for the right to be the nominee of the Independence Party, is shaping up as the one worth watching. It seems likely that Pataki will win, but it isn't a sure thing, since primaries in minor parties are so rare and no one really has any idea who will vote. The real-world ramification of this primary is that if Golisano should somehow win, it would arrive as a thunderbolt on the political landscape. First, you'd have the fact of a sitting governor with a powerful political machine at his disposal having been sloppy enough not to cover all his bases. Second, Golisano and all his millions and all his attack ads -- aimed at Pataki, not the Democrat -- would be in play through November.

But this primary presents more rococo possibilities as well. And here, again, the lieutenant-governor candidates (though not their sex lives) are a big part of the story. This gets complicated, so pay attention.

Under state law, voters in primaries vote separately for governor and lieutenant governor, pulling two different levers. But in general elections, you vote for them as a ticket, pulling one lever only, on the theory that the two winners of the primary election constitute a single slate that voters have selected to represent their party. This legal wrinkle, in fact, is the reason McCall has campaigned so aggressively with Mehiel. Cuomo's LG running mate, Charlie King, is African-American, like McCall, and the McCall camp isn't wild about the idea of presenting to general-election voters an all-black ticket. Should McCall beat Cuomo and King defeat Mehiel, you'll see so much space between the top of the ticket and his second that you'll think you're watching McGovern and Eagleton. This potential quandary for McCall also probably explains, incidentally, someone's motivation to leak that Mehiel-love-child story.

Now back to Pataki-Golisano. Suppose Pataki beats Golisano. But suppose also that Bill Neild, a Rochester attorney who is Golisano's Independence Party running mate, gets more votes than Mary Donohue, Pataki's running mate and the incumbent lieutenant governor. I should note that while this would be an unusual outcome, it is not impossible. Neild has been involved with the party since its founding in 1994 and is based in a city with a large number of Independence Party voters. And who, after all, really knows who Mary Donohue is?

If this were to happen, then the Independence Party ticket would be Pataki-Neild. The Republican ticket in November will be, naturally, the incumbents -- Pataki-Donohue. Here's the rub: Any votes for Pataki-Neild will not be counted toward the Pataki-Donohue vote total, because it's a different ticket -- under the logic of state election law, an entirely different entity, irrespective of the fact that the same person heads it! So George Pataki, when paired with a running mate not of his choosing, is no longer the same George Pataki. He would have to spend gobs of money to persuade voters not to vote for him on the Independence line in November. No wonder the Republicans went to such efforts to try to get poor Neild tossed off the ballot, eh? (They failed.) And who knew that something as pedestrian as the election law could contain such metaphysical puzzles?

Finally, there's one more primary I'm fond of, for the laudable if quaint circumstances that led to it.

There is a Democratic primary to fill the state-comptroller slot McCall is vacating, between Bill Mulrow, a Westchester-based fund manager who's been running for this office for the better part of two years, and our old friend Alan Hevesi, last seen stumping gamely for Mark Green after he himself got knocked out of mayoral contention last year. Of course, you'd barely know from the papers that it was even happening -- if the column inches this race has generated could be converted to snowfall on a La Guardia runway, it wouldn't amount to enough to shut down the airport for ten minutes.

Insiders assume that Hevesi will win this primary, because (a) he is much better known, especially downstate, and (b) most of the vote in a primary comes from downstate. This is certainly the Hevesi plan, at least. But Mulrow was due to get a push from a series of ads attacking Hevesi that are being paid for by the carpenters' union, an independent expenditure that is legal but is the sort of thing that goo-goos, and certain broadsheet newspapers' editorial boards, tend to frown upon.

But wait! Mulrow and Hevesi are also facing off in a Working Families Party primary. I love this story, too. To be the designee of the WFP, a candidate has to win 75 percent of the vote of the state committee. Mulrow got 74.1 percent. No endorsement. God love reformers.

It's all enough to make one want to bring back the days of handpicked candidates and the smoke-filled room. Except now there'd be no smoking.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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