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Tale of Two Georges

One day he looks utterly invincible, another he seems shaky and politically enfeebled -- and that's just in one week. Will the real George Pataki please stand up?

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Not that it mattered all that much, but George Pataki, reciting the Gettysburg Address last Wednesday, managed to take one of the most sacred texts of American politics and sound like an earnest schoolboy reciting "Invictus." But he was saved by the solemnity of the occasion. The desire of the media and the citizenry to see last Wednesday's ceremonies as a consummate and tasteful reflection on the past year, whether they actually were or not, was overpowering enough that any such criticisms would have seemed peevish, so the Pataki on display last Wednesday -- the genial but vanilla-bland uncle the voters have come to embrace -- could have read the thing backward and still come out looking fine.

Of course, if he was distracted, he had reason to be. Eight or so hours before, the Tuesday George -- the hard-shell pol who'd never lost an election -- received the biggest shock of his political life. Just dwell with me for a moment on the governor's loss to Tom Golisano in the Independence Party primary. Golisano took in 9,600 votes, beating Pataki -- and winning a spot on the November ballot -- by a measly 900 votes. It would be hard to fault Pataki partisans for being angry about Golisano having snuck in on the cheap like this (though in another sense it was, at $3,000 a vote, anything but cheap). But the rules are the rules, and in seven years as governor, while they were working to his benefit, Pataki never sought to change them.

The real question is this: How could a sitting governor, a man with a muscular political machine at his disposal, knowing that a Golisano victory in this primary created the only conceivable scenario by which he could lose in November, muster only 8,700 votes in the entire state?

The Pataki camp's spin was that Golisano had stolen it with his lucre, that there was nothing the "good guys" could do in the face of a $30 million cannonade. Nonsense. For one thing, Mike Bloomberg's precedent now means we hardly blink at such figures anymore. But more than that, things like this are simply not supposed to happen in Republican Party politics. One of the core emotional differences between the two parties is that Republicans -- CEOs, Wall Streeters, owners -- are completely comfortable with power, while Democrats -- teachers, social workers, public-interest busybodies -- are ambivalent about it. When it's time to put the hammer down, by God, Republicans put it down, and they win at any cost (see Florida). So this defeat should not have happened under any circumstances. Assuming the Pataki people don't steal this one back through the absentee ballots they asked to be impounded last week -- and don't put it past them -- this loss represents total humiliation.

It means that Pataki is not as invincible as he seems. Pataki will want voters to see only the Wednesday George: No Cicero, to be sure, but nevertheless an affable and obliging fellow who makes no one's blood boil and who is the product of a meticulous image-scrub that has been carried out with inordinate skill over the years. Wednesday George grants succor to the 9/11 families. Wednesday George is a patron of the environment. Wednesday George is a fiscally sensible tax-cutter who has "created" 700,000 jobs. Wednesday George talks and talks about how those beastly Rockefeller drug laws must be repealed. Wednesday George, great pal of Dennis Rivera, skips down to Vieques and pops into bodegas in Washington Heights, sprinkling his conversation con un poco español.

Wednesday George is invincible.

Tuesday George is a different man. Tuesday George is a usually successful and pitiless knife-fighter who'll try to get away with anything until the papers rub their eyes and take notice, at which point he backs off and announces amiably that he's decided to do the right thing, like when he tried to keep John McCain off the GOP-primary ballot in the state in 2000 -- it's one thing to play games with voters' choices for civil-court judge, but for president of the United States?! Tuesday George runs an administration that allegedly sold paroles in return for campaign contributions. Tuesday George is an executive of flamboyant fiscal irresponsibility who has been able to blame 9/11 for financial problems his budgets have created. Tuesday George has never lifted a finger to do anything about the Rockefeller laws.

Tuesday George is vulnerable.

How could a sitting governor, with a muscular political machine at his disposal, knowing that a Golisano victory was the only imaginable way he could lose in November, muster only 8,700 votes in the entire state?

But . . . to whom? We can rule out Golisano. He might well have a dramatic impact on this election, but it's safe to say he's not going to win.

So we turn to Carl McCall. Here is a man who, not unlike Pataki, has often been underestimated. The next two months will demonstrate either that those modest assessments were accurate or that McCall has more gumption than anyone would have guessed. There are certain tactical maneuvers he can make to get some momentum. He must persuade the Clintons and Chuck Schumer that he's got a real chance here and that they should all get out and work for him. Schumer's endorsement of McCall in the primary was huge. Used the right way -- Schumer with moderates and Jews, Hillary with liberals and women, Bill with everyone -- they could be worth, oh, seven points.

But mostly, McCall needs to rely on himself. This is his shot. It's either the governor's mansion or the retirement home. He's going to have to attack intelligently -- the image of Wednesday George is so firmly fixed in voters' minds that convincing them of the existence of Tuesday George won't be an easy thing to do. And he's going to have to defend himself from attacks. Everything that happened during or even near his tenure as president of the Board of Education is going to be hung around his neck, and some people do wonder whether this basically placid man, who's never really had a tough election, is ready for the dogfight that awaits him.

Finally, he'll need a message that invests his candidacy with meaning and makes it about something bigger than himself. Race and his dance with historical destiny are a part of that, but only a part.

Democrats win statewide elections by generating enthusiasm within two key constituencies, both of which are mostly white. First, voters in Westchester and Erie counties (yes, that specifically) who are essentially nonpolitical and vote for the person who seems more in touch with their lives. And second, the Manhattan cultural elite. Small in number, they have disproportionate power -- they run the media, they go on Charlie Rose, they create a mood. They don't normally care that much about local politics, but they like to plug in every so often; it makes them feel civic. They tilt Democratic, but much less fervently than a generation ago.

These two groups of voters don't share many values, but they do have two things in common: McCall hasn't made much of an impression on them, but Wednesday George has. Those are the two conditions that have to change for McCall to have a chance. He'll accomplish this less by laying out positions, which voters rarely respond to, than by creating a persona. This, they often do respond to, as the incumbent knows better than anyone.


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