Race for New York turns nasty

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PEARL FEINSTEIN could be the lethal weapon that Democrat Charles Schumer needs in his bid to oust Al D'Amato from the United States Senate. She may be 93, but Ms Feinstein is vicious with her steel walking aid and anyone declaring loyalty to Senator D'Amato in her earshot is liable to get hit.

She was waving it dangerously just this Tuesday at the Hugh Dogh Senior Center, in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City. Mr Schumer had just finished addressing its members, senior citizens all, with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, and this other woman was suggesting that she planned to vote for D'Amato anyhow. The woman stood out; she had a large cardboard sign around her neck with "Infanticide" scrawled across it. Mr Schumer supports abortion rights, Mr D'Amato opposes them.

"You are never going to vote D'Amato, never, never," Pearl Feinstein screeched at this person who dared speak up for the incumbent. "How could you? He's no damn good. The way he has been going after the poor President on this Watergate stuff and Lewinsky. It's just not right. They should leave the man alone". (You can forgive someone of her years getting her Watergates and Whitewaters mixed up.)

In a largely bloodless mid-term election season, the D'Amato-Schumer contest stands out. Its outcome is more keenly anticipated than almost any other being fought around the country. That in part is because Mr D'Amato, after 18 scrappy and often controversial years in the Senate, is finally in danger of being beaten in a race that, according to polls, is now a dead heat. Curbing Republican gains in the Senate next Tuesday is critical for the Democrats. Mr Schumer may just help them.

But it is attracting attention for other reasons, too. It is proving to be one of the nastiest, most negative and expensive with the campaigns of both sides blitzing the television. And it is also a race where President Bill Clinton's impeachment problems are an open issue, not something unspoken beneath the surface.

Mr Schumer, who has served Brooklyn in the House of Representatives since 1981, is daring actively to recruit both the Clintons to his campaign. The First Lady, whose popularity has ballooned since the Lewinsky matter erupted, may represent little risk. "When you're in her presence, you feel a bit of a tingle,," suggested Schumer. He is also taking the President himself on the hustings tomorrow, which no other Democrat has dared do.

It is a tactic that may pay off. When voters in this state are asked by pollsters who they would rather see sitting in judgement in the Senate if there is an impeachment trial, they overwhelmingly choose Mr Schumer over the strongly anti-Clinton Mr D'Amato.

Monicagate has also become a factor in bringing out the Democrat voters, particularly among African Americans. This week, the Democratic Party has been going door-to-door in heavily black neighbourhoods of New York City, distributing fliers saying: "The Republicans want to impeach our President. Say NO and send the Republicans a message". In other words: dump D'Amato.

New depths of nastiness were meanwhile plumbed last week with the eruption of so-called 'Putzgate'. Seizing on an opportunity to demonstrate the main theme of its ads - that Mr D'Amato is a liar - the Schumer camp revealed that, during a lunch meeting with Jewish leaders, Mr D'Amato had insulted his opponent by calling him a "putzhead', Yiddish for penis. Mr D'Amato initially denied having said such a thing, before finally being shamed into admitting it.

Boorishness has long been a trademark of Mr D'Amato, otherwise known as Senator Pothole because of his zeal in channeling federal dollars to New York.

Both candidates have made efforts to move to the centre. Mr Schumer, most notably, tried to soften his liberal image by dropping his opposition to the death penalty. Even so, few races involve opponents where the ideological differences are starker. In the last days of the race, Mr Schumer is striving to highlight Mr D'Amato's anti-abortion stance as well as his votes in recent years against gun control. Mr D'Amato points to Mr Schumer's vote against military action in the Gulf War and his opposition to welfare reform.

"You could not have a clearer contrast," the First Lady declared on Tuesday, recalling the votes cast by Mr Schumer in fighting the "Contract with America", the conservative programme of measures launched by the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, in 1994. "If he hadn't been there, we would be in a very different position".All pollsters agree that New York City will fall heavily in favour of Mr Schumer while upstate New York will tilt towards Mr D'Amato. It is a race, in other words, that will be won and lost in suburban areas outside the Apple, exactly like this one. And the fate of Mr Schumer especially, will turn on the turnout. For those residents of New Rochelle planning to sit this one out, a warning: beware Pearl and her stick.