By Fred Daley
New York Republicans are scrambling to find a candidate and a message after Gov. George Pataki announced July 27 that he won't seek re-election to a fourth term next year.
Pataki's decision had been anticipated for months as his poll numbers dropped to record lows and his campaign fund-raising lagged. It was widely reported that the governor was toying with leaving office to pursue a presidential run, and party leaders began urging him to decide sooner rather than later.
The GOP faces a daunting task in retaining the state's top job. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by a margin of about 5-to-3, and the gap between the parties has been widening in recent years. Democrats already control every other statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats, and 20 of the state's 29 House seats.
State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who declared his candidacy for governor earlier this year, appears to face no serious challenge for the Democratic nomination and already has more than $12 million in his campaign account. Spitzer consistently led Pataki by double-digit margins in this year's polls.
Two of the state's most popular Republicans -- former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- have made it clear they're not interested in running for governor. So has Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state, who at one point was being discussed by party leaders as a potential candidate.
That leaves the party to choose from a group of lesser-known contenders.
The day after Pataki's announcement, Republican leaders met near Buffalo to interview several possible gubernatorial candidates, and more such gatherings are expected in the weeks ahead. Republican leaders clearly would like to unite behind a single candidate and avoid potentially a divisive primary campaign.
Here's a quick guide to some of those being mentioned as potential GOP candidates:
* Michael Balboni, a state senator from Nassau County. He has been raising money for a possible run for attorney general next year. His base on Long Island could help him to draw critical swing voters in the suburbs, but he isn't well-known elsewhere.
* Randy Daniels, the New York secretary of state. Daniels made headlines earlier this year with a regulatory ruling that effectively killed plans for a controversial cement plant near Hudson. A former Democrat, he is the only African-American in contention, but he appears to have annoyed some Pataki loyalists by going public with his campaign well before the governor had decided to step down. He has drawn support from a group of county Republican chairmen in central New York, however.
* Mary Donohue, the lieutenant governor. Twice elected on a ticket with Pataki, Donohue previously served as a state Supreme Court justice, as Rensselaer County district attorney and as an aide to state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick. But the curse of lieutenant governors in New York is that they're chosen for traits that make them unlikely to upstage their bosses. Donohue has yet to emerge from Pataki's shadow, and party leaders don't appear to regard her as a serious contender so far.
* John Faso of Kinderhook, who was Assembly minority leader until 2002, when he narrowly lost a race for state comptroller. His conservatism on social issues might be a liability in a race for governor, given the state's moderate-to-liberal tilt.
* B. Thomas Golisano, the billionaire businessman from Rochester who ran three losing campaigns for governor on the Independence Party line. The last time around, in 2002, he spent $75 million of his own money, mostly on ads trashing Pataki's economic record, and got 14 percent of the vote. He has ready cash for another campaign, but some county GOP chairmen, angry over his past attacks on Pataki, say they wouldn't support him.
* Rick Lazio, a former congressman who lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2000 Senate race. Like Balboni, his base on Long Island gives him the potential to attract suburban swing voters. In 2000, though, he didn't do well enough in the suburbs, and Clinton outmaneuvered him upstate, cutting into his margin in areas that supposedly were Republican strongholds.
* Patrick Manning, an assemblyman from Hopewell Junction whose district includes part of Columbia County. He has identified himself closely with efforts to reform the state's political system -- efforts that gained some traction in last year's legislative elections. But he isn't well known outside the Hudson Valley.
* Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County district attorney. She's stepping down from that job at the end of the year and says she plans to seek statewide office -- she hasn't decided which one -- in 2006. Some party leaders have been pushing her to challenge Clinton; others think she should run for attorney general. She and her husband have been generous donors to the GOP, but her husband's tax-fraud conviction of a few years ago could prove to be a political liability.
* John Sweeney of Clifton Park, the congressman whose district extends along much of the eastern border of New York. As a former executive director of the state Republican Committee, he would have ready access to a network with GOP donors and political operatives across the state. But he's never been tested as a candidate outside his heavily Republican district and isn't well-known to rank-and-file voters elsewhere.
* William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor. A proven fund-raiser and vote-getter who might be willing to pour some of his personal wealth into the campaign, Weld is a native New Yorker who moved back to the state five years ago. His record of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism likely would play well with swing voters, and he's made it clear he's interested in running. But a poll earlier this year showed him far behind Spitzer in a theoretical matchup, with most New Yorkers saying they weren't familiar with him.
Pataki's decision to step down and seek "new challenges" came on the heels of a three-day trip to Iowa, fueling speculation that the governor is planning a presidential run in 2008. (The official story was that Pataki was in Iowa, the site of the first presidential nominating contest, to attend a meeting of the National Governors Association.)
The notion of Pataki as a presidential contender has been derided by many of his constituents. In one poll of New Yorkers this year, only 16 percent said Pataki should run for president. But as The New York Times pointed out in a story published July 31, similar skepticism from home-state audiences greeted the presidential ambitions of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
The bigger question, many political analysts say, is whether Pataki's moderate record on issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control will be too much of a liability among the conservative voters who are most active in Republican presidential primaries. Some economic conservatives also contend his record on cutting taxes doesn't go far enough.
Like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who's also considered a likely Republican presidential contender in 2008, many of Pataki's actions in his remaining year and a half in office will now be viewed through the prism of presidential politics. If his presidential ambitions are serious, expect a turn to the right.
Romney already has been facing criticism from some home-state voters who say his recent stands on abortion, gay rights, stem cell research and the death penalty all seem calculated to appeal to conservatives elsewhere in the country, rather than to the more moderate views that prevail in Massachusetts.
The most recent case came July 25, when the governor vetoed a bill that would have provided over-the-counter access to the so-called "morning-after" contraceptive pill. Romney's stand was largely symbolic, as the state House and Senate had both passed the bill by overwhelming margins and can easily override the governor's veto.
In New York, Pataki had been weighing whether to sign or veto a similar bill that the Legislature passed in June. On July 31, his office announced he would veto it.
Copyright Hill Country Observer, August 2005. All rights reserved.