Ferraro makes comeback as mud still flies

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AT Grand Central Station, the crossroads of a million hurried lives, Geraldine Ferraro stood alone yesterday, handing out campaign leaflets in her bid to make a comeback from the political dead. People hurrying to their offices stopped in their tracks to take the measure of the woman known to everyone as 'Gerry'. Some timidly approached the now grey- haired but otherwise unmistakable candidate, to take the literature, or to talk. Others asked for her autograph.

Despite the 49-state rout in her 1984 bid to become America's Democratic vice-president to Walter Mondale, Ms Ferraro remains a powerful symbol for female achievement here. She is as outspoken as ever on issues such as abortion. On the stump she projects warmth and intelligence, backed up with a quintessentially New York attitude of treating critics like potential rapists and muggers. From the outset of the race she has led the field for the Democratic nomination in the race to become New York's second senator.

She is razor-sharp in her dealings with the press and is guaranteed to turn out a quotable phrase at the slightest provocation. 'I consider myself pretty good at talking to people; I've only had two stiff conversations in my life,' she said during a pause from frenzied hand-shaking and passing out leaflets in Grand Central station, 'one with Margaret Thatcher, and the other with the Pope. Neither of them liked me very much.'

With the Democratic primary less than two weeks away, Ms Ferraro faces renewed media allegations that she or her family has business and political links with the Mafia.

The Village Voice has led the charge against her, publishing new allegations that she allowed a Mafia operative and child pornographer to remain as a tenant in a building she owned, years after she promised to evict him. The Ferraro family allegedly made an extra dollars 300,000 ( pounds 150,000) by allowing a company owned by the mobster-pornographer to stay on as a tenant. He was eventually murdered in a mob feud in 1986.

The Voice also alleged that her son, who was convicted of trying to sell cocaine two years ago, was given a 'sweetheart deal' on a lease on a shop he owns, because of the Ferraro family's alleged contacts with the New York mafia.

Though explosive, the new allegations have been largely ignored in the other New York papers. Ms Ferraro has a 30-point lead over her Democratic opponents, Elizabeth Holtzman, the city's financial controller, Robert Abrams, New York State's attorney-general, and the radical black candidate the Rev Al Sharpton. The candidates, who all promised to campaign cleanly, have started to refer to the allegations in the hope that some mud will stick.

Ms Ferraro's response has been white-hot anger at what she says is an attempt to smear her simply because of her Italian-American origin. 'This is an ethnic slur, and it's nothing more than that,' she said.

'How do I feel? Terrible, that one's ethnic background is the target of dirt like that. The only good thing is, thank God my mother is not here to see it. It hurt her in 1984 - I'm glad she's not here to see it now.'

Whether Ms Ferraro, who has previously served as a congresswoman from New York, can survive the onslaught on her character clearly depends on whether New York's 4 million registered voters believe her denials of the allegations. As she stood in Grand Central, that potent symbol for the power of the New York City, and was applauded by passing commuters, it seemed that voters were not all that worried about the stories.

She stepped up the attack on her opponents yesterday, calling on them to 'crawl out of the gutter'. In television commercials she has depicted herself as the victim of a smear such as was levelled at Anita Hill after she complained to a Senate committee of sexual harassment, when it was considering Clarence Thomas' candidacy for the Supreme Court.

Ms Ferraro has claimed that she is the victim of a witch-hunt. Her campaign spokesman said: 'No one has accused her of the slightest wrong-doing. The real nature of these allegations is entirely similar to the allegations of someone being a Communist sympathiser.'

The decision will rest with the core of Democratic voters in New York who trouble to vote in primaries. One opposing campaigner said: 'We fear they will support Gerry, because of what she represents as a woman and a Democrat. The Democrats who supported her in the 1984 (presidential) race, are still rooting for Gerry.'

(Photograph omitted)