Primary is secondary in N.Y. tabloids ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL


NEW YORK -- Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown, you think you've got problems with the New York tabloid press? Say hello to John Gotti.

The Arkansas governor and the former California governor have spent the last week sparring with the oft-times irreverent Fourth Estate here. Mr. Clinton has even run a television ad complaining about how the tabloids have been kicking him around.

But while Tuesday's New York presidential primary could be decisive in determining the Democratic nominee, the tabloids -- and local television -- have found a more inviting whipping boy in Gotti, the Mafia don found guilty of multiple murders and general mayhem.

Headline writers had a field day when the verdict came in:

"No More Mr. Wiseguy" -- New York Post.

"Now the Don Is a Con" -- New York Newsday.

"Gone Fella" and "Don Voyage" -- New York Daily News.

This barrage, and similar screamers inside the three tabloids, pushed the presidential campaign into the back pages, with even the staid New York Times leading Page 1 with Gotti's fate and relegating news on the primary to space well inside the paper.

Mr. Clinton's campaign announced the other day that in order to get around the brutal local press, he had changed his mind and would have numerous debates with Mr. Brown. The idea, theoretically at least, was that he would get away from questions about his personal character -- raised relentlessly by the tabloids -- and deal with substantive issues.

Mr. Clinton could have waited for the Gotti jury to come back in because the latter's conviction Thursday on multiple counts gave the tabloids an offer they couldn't refuse. Now the Clinton and Brown campaigns have to hope that the Gotti story will be given cement shoes by the local press before Tuesday so the candidates can regain the public's attention.

The news media as an adversarial force in the New York primary reached such a point that the other day on the "Donahue" show, a sort of tabloid of the airwaves, host Phil Donahue invited Mr. Brown to turn the tables on reporters in the audience by asking them tough questions. He seemed tempted but declined, remarking, "How can you attack these guys? They come out every day."

Politics being among other things the art of making use of what you've got, Mr. Clinton, while castigating the tabloids from one side of his mouth, has not hesitated to quote them from the other to carry his argument against Mr. Brown.

But Mr. Brown has not forgotten the adage that it doesn't pay to pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel. Asked yesterday at the headquarters of New York Liberal Party, which had just endorsed him, how he thought the New York press had treated him, Mr. Brown had nothing but praise for the tabloids.

"I think they're doing a heck of a good job," he said. "I think some of their competitors could learn a thing or two. They're not only interesting, but they have a human touch that we're going to bring back into politics."

With that, Mr. Brown was off to the mecca of the tabloid reader, the New York subway, where he asked reporters and cameramen packed around him: "When was the last time Bush rode a subway?" One of them shot back: "When was the last time you rode a subway?"

So it goes, in the city where political candidates learn the hard way that you can't beat a guy who owns a printing press, whether you're Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown or even John Gotti.

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