It was supposed to be a lot easier than this. Flash back to, say, early October. Mayor Giuliani endorsed George W. Bush. Governor Pataki, who had already backed the Texan, joined both for a quick political jog around the city -- out to Queens, up to Arthur Avenue. Smiles all around. Even Guy Molinari, back then, was on the team.
Flash forward to today. Pataki is fighting with State Senate leader Joe Bruno. Pataki and state GOP chair Bill Powers are reportedly at odds over who's running the Bush effort here. Pataki and Giuliani are fighting, of course, because they just always are, public pronouncements aside. Molinari is fighting with everybody. And the presidential choice of all of the above -- except Molinari, who later peeled off and grumpily endorsed John McCain -- has big problems.
Just weeks ago, the New York Republican Party was all Grant Wood -- calm, decipherable, uncomplicated. Today it's a Pollock. Splat, all over the place.
Matters may right themselves. The polls show a neck-and-neck race between Bush and McCain, but the real-life edge still has to go to Bush. Two simple reasons: first, the support of Pataki and Powers; second, the fact that New York's primary is a closed primary -- "a real Republican primary," corrects state party spokesman Dan Allen -- in which Democrats and Independents can't vote. To which we might add a third reason, savored by insiders: New York's election rules, God bless 'em, stipulate that voters in a presidential primary do not actually vote for the candidates themselves. They vote for delegate slates. The names of the candidates appear under the names of the delegates, in a smaller typeface. You can probably guess which candidate's delegates are well-known local power brokers and which one's are outsiderish scruffs.
So, in all likelihood, New York's role this year -- along with California's, where Democrats and Independents can vote, but their votes aren't counted toward the delegate total -- will be to toll the bell for insurgency. Except . . . why is it that among Republicans in Michigan and these other states, Bush has been beating McCain three to one, but among Republicans being polled in New York, the race is a virtual dead heat?
"Well, it's a bunch of things," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. "First of all, New York Republicans are moderate. The Rockefeller Republican is not dead. Never has been. It was hijacked for a while, by Buckley Republicanism. And they hated Mario Cuomo, but a lot of people ended up hating Mario Cuomo, even some Democrats. But Rockefeller Republicans never went anywhere."
That's reason No. 1. Here's No. 2: "There is an element among rank-and-file Republican voters who are very angry at the governor and the party for the ham-handed way they tried to keep McCain off the ballot." This is not to be underestimated. Most inside-baseball stories just go away, and those of us who obsess over their details often wonder why the public didn't seem to care. But this one, people cared about.
Here's reason No. 3, again from Zogby: "Forty-five to 48 percent of the state Republican vote is Catholic. And while there is no Catholic vote per se -- if anything, Catholics are more likely to disagree with the pope and the cardinal on abortion, for example -- there are Catholic sensibilities. If somebody attacks the pope, then even fallen Catholics get angry." You haven't heard the last about Bob Jones University, in other words, from the McCain camp. From the Bush team, expect to see the Catholic brother, the Mexican sister-in-law, maybe even the little brown ones, as Poppy touchingly called them.
And, finally, No. 4: "Forty percent of the Republicans who voted in Michigan identified themselves as Christian conservatives. You're not going to find that here in New York. I would say 15, 20 percent."