NEW YORK — New York.--The contest to determine who will preside as mayor during the next four years of this city's accelerating decay is between the incumbent, who is a Democrat, and Rudolph Giuliani, a former prosecutor, who is not. The outcome will not matter much because it is certain to lengthen the ruinous reign of the municipal liberalism that has reduced this decrepit and dyspeptic city to the role of a warning.
Still, the campaign merits scrutiny. It illuminates the city's reputation as the nation's thyroid gland, and it illustrates the kind of conditions in which sensible voters will support a third-party candidate who cannot win but who could determine the winner.
During the four years of Mayor David ("We reject the right-wing Republican philosophy that says if you can't afford it, you can't have it") Dinkins, the city has gained 200,000 welfare cases and lost nearly 400,000 jobs.
The city's $31 billion budget (bigger than every state budget except those of California, New York and Texas) cannot maintain schools that open without chaos (an asbestos crisis this year) or abstain from sexual and political propaganda when open.
The city has more reported (never mind the unreported) crime victims each year than Wyoming has residents. Mayor Dinkins has the brass to boast that the murder rate is down. It is, from the peak of his first two years, but last year's body count (1,995) was higher than in the year before he came to office.
It took him three nights to respond vigorously to a pogrom (his administration calls it an "uprising") of blacks against Jews in Brooklyn, during which one person was lynched and more than 80 were injured. He never responded decently to a black boycott of Korean grocers.
The mayor is running in the spirit of 1990s liberalism, as a victim. "They" -- Republicans in Washington -- caused his problems. He deserves to be the first big-city black mayor to fail to be re-elected. Which is not to say that Mr. Giuliani, the nominee of the Republican and Liberal parties, deserves to win.
Neither man is for meaningful school choice (vouchers redeemable at public and private schools) or for repealing rent controls on even luxury apartments ("too emotional" an issue says Mr. Giuliani). Neither man is for the sort of serious privatization entertained by mayors in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and elsewhere. Neither man had sympathy for the parents who rebelled when the school system began inflicting "Heather Has Two Mommies" and similar sexual indoctrination on grade-schoolers.
That rebellion moved George Marlin to seek the Conservative Party nomination. Consigned to the shadows by Mr. Giuliani's refusal to debate him, Mr. Marlin, a 6-foot-6 investment manager and Chesterton scholar, is the candidate for voters who prefer a choice to two echoes. If he gets just 5 percent of the vote -- Republicans such as Bill Bennett and Pete du Pont have come here to help him -- he may be able to sink Mr. Giuliani, thereby preserving the Conservative Party as a force not to be ignored.
Mr. Marlin is for school choice, term limits and ample tax cuts. There are 28 taxes, and many lesser exactions, to cut. He is for privatization in a city that offers ample opportunities for that. The city spends more on public housing than all other American cities combined, and the bus system pays full-time wages to thousands of part-time employees. Furthermore, Mr. Marlin, who witty and civil, is a reminder that politics need not be loathsome.
The Dinkins-Giuliani campaign, already rancid, degenerated rapidly after President Clinton, at his oily worst, dropped in to intone: "Too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are." Translation: Whites who do not vote for Mr. Dinkins are racists, sort of.
"This is not as simple as overt racism," said Mr. Clinton, stressing the complexity of the covert. The fact that more than 90 percent of the blacks who will vote will vote for Mayor Dinkins does not distress Mr. Clinton as he sermonizes about democracy and differences.
A Dinkins supporter (not the one who said Mr. Giuliani is supported by "fascist elements") accused the Republican's running-mate, Herman Badillo, of being inauthentically Hispanic because he married a Jew. Mr. Badillo, seeking to demonstrate the risks of the politics of ethnic purity, noted that Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, a Dinkins supporter, is half Puerto Rican. So Mr. Rangel noted that Mr. Badillo is an orphan: "He's too vulnerable to talk about other people's backgrounds if he doesn't know his own." And so it goes in the city that Mayor Dinkins calls a "gorgeous mosaic."
In this maelstrom of political timidity and personal meanness, some people call Mr. Marlin a "spoiler." What's to spoil?
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.