The Wizard of AZ

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.”

In sum – a whole new ball game. Forget Michigan. New York’s different. Besides, there is a – well, a spiritual factor at work here. Or Zeitgeistian. Which is to say, McCain is, somehow, a better fit. He’s more New York – straight talk, sense of humor, devil-may-care twinkle of mischief in his eye. Bush is strictly hicksville (and I don’t mean Long Island), sucking up to the Christian right, going to Bob Jones, getting his only solid victories in two of the whitest, most conservative, and quite possibly overall worst states in the union.

Peter King, the Long Island congressman who switched to McCain just before Michigan, touched on this. “You grow up in New York, to survive politically – to survive just with people – you have to deal with all kinds of different ethnic groups, different people, different points of view,” King says. “So you learn after a while that you don’t come at people with a hard line. It’s a question of tone. I’m pro-life. I don’t walk into a room in New York expecting everybody to be pro-life.” What King’s saying, really, is that someone whose style isn’t rigid is more in tune with the way New Yorkers think and act. New York is just more of a McCain kind of state.

Bush is still the favorite. Dan Allen insists that he hears from lots of Republicans around the state who “don’t understand how it is that Democrats and Independents are playing such a major role in nominating the Republican candidate.” This is partyspeak, which we’ve been hearing from former GOP chair Haley Barbour and Michigan’s John Engler and many others, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. If you’re a Democrat, imagine a Democrat who had a strong liberal record on most questions but veered from the party line on one or two vital questions – let’s say this hypothetical Dem supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and was pretty strident about doing so. Imagine watching that Democrat win primary after primary, on the strength of Republican votes. You might be a little steamed.

The real fun of this Republican primary, though, isn’t in who wins. It’s in what happens in New York afterward because of who wins.

Consider, first, a McCain victory. This would be devastating for the state GOP. Pataki endorsed Bush last May. This was supposed to be a done deal. If it collapses? Pataki and Powers are supposedly at loggerheads, and have been for some time, about the Bush campaign’s direction and about the Giuliani Senate campaign. On the former, it’s said that Powers has been miffed because, as one source put it, “all the communications from the Bush people have gone not through the party but through the second floor” – that is, the governor’s office. With regard to the latter, it’s simple: Powers has been helpful to Giuliani these past few months, which obviously doesn’t make Pataki very happy. Allen says there’s no bad blood – “They talk on the phone all the time,” he says, “and I don’t hear any screaming.” But insiders have been speculating for a while now about how much longer Powers will stay in his job. The man who rebuilt the state party has been on a bit of a skid lately, with no wins to brag about, really, since Pataki’s first, in 1994, which helps explain why he’s disregarding the governor’s war with the mayor and pulling for Giuliani.

Speaking of whom, what would a McCain win mean for him? Well, he endorsed Bush, so he’ll continue his lengthy, by this time surely record-setting streak of endorsing losers. But he’d probably come out of a McCain win looking okay because Bush is more the governor’s baby than Giuliani’s, and because the mayor did say in January that McCain should be on the ballot. And should McCain win New York and actually end up being the GOP nominee, that helps Rudy even more, because it’s commonly agreed that Bush at the top of the ticket in New York in November is exactly what Hillary Clinton is praying for.

And if Bush wins, will the governor just write off November, since no one believes Bush can beat Al Gore in New York anyway, and happily let Rudy die with Bush? Or will he actually do something surprising for a politician and put his party’s fate ahead of his own? That seems unlikely. But what does seem likely is that by November, we’ll be able to declare a winner in the Pataki-Giuliani war, and March 7 is a key battle.

The Wizard of AZ