Ferraro leads sorry field in sordid NY poll

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AL SHARPTON, the black activist, gadfly and preacher who on more than one occasion has brought New York to the brink of racial unrest, is running for the Senate in Washington in a remarkable attempt to become a member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs.

Nobody expects Mr Sharpton to win in today's primary election, but his transformation, from a rabble-rousing, street-corner preacher in a tracksuit to a besuited and coiffured mainstream politician, is one of the more hilarious aspects of the Democratic Party's bid to unseat the Republican incumbent, Alphonse D'Amato - known as 'Senator Pothole' because of his fixation on local issues.

So sordid has New York politics become that every candidate in today's election has been investigated at one time or another on corruption charges. Dishonesty in and out of office has been the prevailing theme of an extraordinarily bitter race to find a suitable Democratic candidate who could unseat D'Amato in November.

Effectively, the race is between Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice-presidential candidate who has been out of politics for eight years; Robert Abrams, the state's Attorney General, and Elizabeth Holtzman, New York City's financial comptroller.

While Mr Sharpton has metamorphosed into a mainstream politician of statesmanlike stature, Ms Ferraro has been waging her own battle against demons she thought had been exorcised during her 1984 bid to become Vice President of the United States. She began the race for the nomination with a commanding lead over her opponents, but as more revelations have become known about her immediate family's dealings with the Mafia, her candidacy has become tarnished - perhaps irrevocably.

Ms Ferraro's 12-point lead in the polls has withered after a barrage of character attacks over the weekend by her rivals, who have been running 'attack' television ads accusing her of accepting dollars 300,000 in rent from a mobster - who earned his living as a distributor of child pornography - years after she had promised to evict him. By yesterday morning, Lee Miringoff, one of New York's most reliable pollsters, said Ms Ferraro was dead level with her closest rival, Mr Abrams.

Ms Ferraro, aged 57, has used her hard-boiled New York attitude and fiery oratorical skills to counterattack. In a televised debate over the weekend she portrayed herself as the only candidate with enough national experience to represent New York adequately, and as a liberal on every issue except the death penalty, which she wants restored in New York.

Her image has been further tainted by the publication of a police surveillance report in which her husband was observed talking with a Mafia figure to whom he had rented an office, despite his denials that he had ever met the man in person. Ms Ferraro has also been accused of threatening a local prosecutor in 1987 that she would commit suicide if he did not stop a trial in which her husband was accused of extorting a bribe.

The Democrats want to win back the Senate seat from Senator D'Amato, who has been widely investigated for doing favours to his political contributors. The other candidates have queried whether Ms Ferraro has a clean enough record to be able to challenge successfully in the general election, but in the sordid world of New York politics all the candidates have sordid little secrets which they would prefer to forget about.

Both Mr Abrams and Ms Holtzman have been criticised for taking campaign contributions from people with whom they had official business while in office. Mr Sharpton has perhaps the most colourful record of all, having been secretly taped by the FBI while talking to the promoter Don King about Mafia efforts to rig professional boxing bouts.