US Presidential Elections: New York finds its voice in 'Senator Pothole'

Click to follow
GETTING caught with your hand in the till was never an obstacle to elective office in New York, but failing to cut an outrageous figure for the voters can be a fatal error, as Robert Abrams, the squeaky- clean attorney-general, is discovering in his battle with Alfonse D'Amato for a seat in the Senate.

As befits a city where everything has to be larger than life, the New York campaign for the Senate is by far the dirtiest in the nation. The two New York candidates, who routinely describe each other as 'sleazeballs', are conducting the campaign in a series of highly theatrical appearances at rallies, in public and in televised ads. The fight has been ugly and Mr Abrams, 54, a classic throwback to 1960s Democratic liberalism, is having to struggle to keep up.

Mr D'Amato's rasping New York accent, his uncouth manner and the relentless message that he is looking out for the little guy's interests in Washington, go down well with the unsophisticated majority of the state. Senator Pothole, as Mr D'Amato likes to be called, is also an anti-abortion Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state: he has had to go on the offensive from the outset to counteract the 'coat-tails' effect of the presidential race, in which Governor Bill Clinton has a virtual lock on New York State.

Fifty-five years old and already a two-term Senator, Mr D'Amato has been under investigation for corruption and influence-peddling from half a dozen law-enforcement agencies, and he was criticised by a Senate watchdog committee for using his office in 'an improper and inappropriate manner'. He is still under investigation for illegally awarding subsidised housing to local supporters and for receiving huge campaign contributions from Puerto Ricans in return for steering government grants their way. He has never been indicted for a crime, however, and he has called the scrutiny 'politically motivated'.

To divert attention away from his own shortcomings, Mr D'Amato went on the offensive early on with more than dollars 12m ( pounds 7m) of television ads, many of which baldly misstated the truth but nevertheless severely damaged his opponent.

Mr D'Amato's big break came in early this month, when Mr Abrams was so unnerved by hecklers at a rally that he called the Senator a 'fascist'. It was clear Mr Abrams was not comparing Mr D'Amato to Mussolini, but to Goebbels, the teller of the Big Lie, and, in any case, Italian-Americans are not the most vocal when it comes to protesting at ethnic slurs. But Mr D'Amato made a meal of his rival's gaffe. He began showing footage of Mussolini in his television ads to show voters what he had been compared to.

The tactic may be working. Across the state, where many Democratic voters support Governor Clinton for President, they intend to 'split the ticket' by voting for Mr D'Amato over Mr Abrams. Always ready to accuse colleagues of being 'baloney artists', the Senator has hit a chord with working people in New York. The latest opinion polls put him almost level with Mr Abrams.