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The Pataki Puzzle

Could he actually be thinking about running for president?


Governor Pataki’s closest aides have cashed out of government, and two alpha Democrats are jockeying for his job. His poll numbers are mediocre, and the editorial pages have been unkind. On many weekends, he is not even in the state.

There are signs that the Pataki era in Albany, after nearly a decade, is winding down. Although the governor and his aides maintain that he might yet seek a fourth term—“There is just so much to do,” he told me, with as much conviction as he can muster—he is developing an exit strategy. He is trying to maximize the options for his next political step, which, inconceivable as it may sound, could well include a campaign for the presidency.

So in late June, as the legislative session was ticking down and the unfinished business was piling up, Pataki slipped away for a weekend in Southern California. He headlined a congressman’s fund-raiser, addressed a local Republican club, and delivered the keynote speech at an Orange County GOP dinner. Last fall, he spoke at an Iowa Republican Committee dinner, and then in January and again in May, made pilgrimages to New Hampshire—touching down in the two states that just so happen to play an outsize role in presidential campaigns. In between, he spoke to Republican audiences in Washington State, Oregon, Georgia, and Florida.

The hurdles to becoming President Pataki are formidable, if not insurmountable. The governor is personable, disciplined, and determined. But he still hasn’t mastered the political arts of delivering a rousing speech and commanding a stage. (Of course, John Kerry hasn’t, either.) More important, Pataki’s positions on guns, gays, and abortion, which sell in New York, would find few takers in the Republican heartland. Then there is his old rival Rudy Giuliani, who stands a far better chance of surfing the admiration he engendered after the 9/11 attacks all the way to the White House. If a presidential race barely has room for one New York Republican, how could two squeeze in? But increasingly, political observers see a presidential bid as Pataki’s next move. He now has a huge fund-raising base, which would provide enough money for him to amble up to the race, play for a while, and see what happens. And while there are many doubters who cannot imagine him atop the GOP ticket in 2008, no matter the unforeseen events between now and then, not everyone is prepared to count him out. “There are people who run for president who don’t ever have the chance to win, because it would break their hearts, kill them, if they didn’t try,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist mentions the Republican senators Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch, with a “What were they thinking?” tone. “I do not see Pataki in that category. He would be serious. Republicans would not say, ‘That guy has no chance.’ ”

New York is a Democratic state, but it is packed with wealthy Republicans, most of them part of Pataki’s vast donor network. His chief fund-raiser, a lawyer named Cathy Blaney, began building it when she worked for Senator Alfonse D’Amato. In winning three campaigns for governor, Pataki has transformed D’Amato’s fund-raising Rolodex into a file cabinet, and he has been using it to help Republicans around the country—building friendships and amassing political IOUs in the process. He has raised $9.5 million for the president’s reelection, aides say, more than fulfilling his obligations as one of Bush’s “Rangers,” the elite tier of supporters who pledged to corral at least $200,000 apiece for the campaign.

Pataki’s fund-raisers also have become the go-to guys for Republicans who regularly troop into town seeking donations. They have organized events for everyone from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, the beneficiary of a $1,000-a-head cocktail hour at a Manhattan restaurant last September, to House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who collected campaign cash at the home of public-relations executive Howard Rubenstein last month. No matter where Pataki lands—another term in Albany, a cushy job in the private sector—it won’t hurt to have such highly placed friends in his debt. But it’s in a bid for the White House that they might prove the most useful.

"These days, if Rudy is Oprah, Pataki is Montel."

One evening in June, a black SUV pulled up to La Nueva España, a Dominican restaurant on West 207th Street. A back door opened, and Pataki, who just turned 59, stepped onto the sidewalk. He entered the restaurant, walked past a framed picture of himself on the wall, and made his way to the dining room upstairs, saying hello to each table of patrons along the way.

Pataki settled his nearly six-foot-five frame into a chair and ordered dinner in Spanish, flashing the language skills he acquired for his third—and, most people believed, final— campaign for governor in 2002. His Spanish appeared smoother now than two years ago; clearly, he has continued to bone up.

“Now I am going to get drunk,” he joked, sipping a Presidente beer. Well, one can hope. It would be bad form for any politician to talk about 2008 when the 2004 race is not settled, and no New York pol holds his cards tighter than Pataki. A little inebriation might loosen him up. Over the course of an hour-long dinner, Pataki admits he’s watching his carbs, talks about the Knicks, and boasts that his Spanish is now better than his Hungarian. By the time the tapioca pudding arrives for dessert, the governor allowed that his fund-raising appearances now could create more political options for him down the road. “Sure,” Pataki said. He quickly added, “That’s not the reason.” He wants to be “part of the national policy debate,” he said, and help the president.

Friends say they would be surprised if Pataki is not operating from some grand plan. “George Pataki is always planning for the future,” says State Senator Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican. “He is conducting himself not as a lame duck, but as someone who is going to run for office again.”

Pataki was the underdog in winning elections for Peekskill mayor, the Assembly, and the State Senate, defying expectations every step of the way. Then he unseated Governor Mario Cuomo, joining the celebrated wave of Republican governors who swept into power between 1990 and 1994 and were hailed as the future of the GOP. A certain governor of Texas went on to fulfill that promise. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania is now Homeland Security secretary and may himself be a candidate for the White House in 2008. Nearly all the others have left active politics, either because they were term-limited, hit a political ceiling (Christie Whitman of New Jersey), or crashed and burned (John Rowland of Connecticut). Pataki is the only one still standing as governor. Which suggests either that he cannot make it to the next level or that he’s shrewdly waiting for the most opportune moment to try.

Pataki does not deny thinking about the presidency, but places his thoughts in the most benign of contexts. “It’s like when I was in the backyard [shooting basketballs] and trying to get playing time at Peekskill High School. You dream then of the NBA. Of course, when you are in the political realm, you can’t help but think about it. But that is 2008. You are looking at 2004, and that has got to be and that certainly is my focus.”

In his stump speech to Republicans, Pataki calls the November election nothing less than “the most important in my lifetime.” He frames it as a choice between “whether or not Americans will forget what happened on September 11.” He is the anti–Michael Moore. “I mean this every day as one who was there—thank God President Bush was our president on September 11,” Pataki told a New Hampshire crowd.

One of the survival rules for a statewide Republican in New York is to downplay the Republican label. These days, Pataki is doing just the opposite. His support for the president is up front and unwavering, no easy position in a state that Senator Kerry is likely to win. But such partisanship has won him points with the president and the party, and stamped Pataki as a loyal Republican and a team player.

The president’s advisers see Pataki as having credibility to talk about homeland security and terror because he was governor when the Twin Towers were attacked. So while the Republican governor of another big Democratic state—that would be Arnold in California—shies away from Bush, the campaign regularly calls on Pataki to be a surrogate, by holding press conferences and appearing on the cable-show circuit. It is a theme that Pataki has woven into his own stump speech. He paints the president as having the spine that Democrats lack to make America secure. There are no apologies for invading Iraq. “We hear the Democrats saying, ‘Saddam Hussein maybe didn’t have weapons of mass destruction,’ ” he told the Republican Jewish Coalition last February in Palm Beach. “I want to tell you that Saddam Hussein by himself was a weapon of mass destruction.”

Pataki’s status as the 9/11 governor enables him to stand out from the other political-dinner speakers who also boast of cutting crime and taxes. Shelley Ashenfelter, finance director of the Oregon Republican Party, says she had no trouble selling out tickets to a September fund-raiser once Pataki was booked as the speaker. “I think people wanted to hear from his perspective—as someone who was there on 9/11 and was part of the leadership that had to respond,” she says. “He was a huge hit.”

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