NEW YORK -- It was a quintessential bit of New York political theater -- Mayor David Dinkins standing on the steps of City Hall surrounded by prominent Democrats, most of them Jewish, who were bestowing their blessing on his candidacy for a battery of cameras.
You had to wonder why less than a week from the election Dinkins needs the testimonials of people like Bella Abzug and Abe Beame, the 87-year-old former mayor. But the message was clear: David Dinkins is good enough for these prominent Jews so why not for you people out there in Brooklyn and Queens?
That's what the campaign for mayor of the nation's largest city has become -- a question of establishing credentials. The Dinkins campaign is clearly relying on persuading enough traditional Democrats that he should be given another chance after a first-term performance that has turned many of them away from him.
Meanwhile, Republican challenger Rudolph Giuliani is trying to provide those same voters some reassurance by projecting a picture of himself as a non-threatening, perhaps even good humored, and competent new leader who offers some hope for a better city. "Rudy's demeanor is going to be the big argument," says David Garth, the veteran media consultant advising his campaign.
Thus, a couple of hours after Dinkins' media event at City Hall, Giuliani held one of his own in midtown, appearing before an audience of supporters at the Roosevelt Hotel to promise a "new era" of conciliatory politics in the city that would appeal to a "higher instinct" in the electorate rather than blind party loyalty and racial and ethnic stereotyping. The message here was also clear: New Yorkers have nothing to fear from Rudy Giuliani in City Hall.
In fact, however, the outcome here seems to depend almost entirely on the size of the various blocs that make up the electorate next Tuesday.
For Dinkins, the first imperative is a huge black turnout, as much as the 28 percent of the total electorate exit polls found when Dinkins defeated Giuliani narrowly four years ago. Should that black share drop to 25 percent or 26 percent, the margin either way is likely to be razor thin. A black share down around 22 percent would probably mean Giuliani would be elected.
But Dinkins also needs close to the one-third of the Jewish vote he received in 1989, and published polls so far show him under 30 percent with this key group, which is why Bella Abzug and Abe Beame seemed relevant.
A month ago Giuliani seemed clearly on the road to success. In a city preoccupied by crime, Dinkins was carrying the heavy baggage of his hesitant performance in acting against rampaging blacks in the Crown Heights riots and in dealing with the black boycott against Korean grocers. And if the mayor had a specific plan to remedy New York's ills in a second term, it was a well kept secret so far as most of the voters were concerned.
But the Dinkins campaign has succeeded in driving up the negatives of the Republican challenger, branding him as an ally of Ronald Reagan because he was a federal prosecutor in the Reagan years and suggesting that he is not fully committed to abortions rights and would attract fascist support because of his right-wing views.
The result now is that published opinion polls show the race within the margin of error if a tough screen is applied to identify those who are most certain to vote Tuesday.
But Giuliani has countered not only by presenting himself as a far less threatening figure than Dinkins would paint but by stressing the idea that Democrats can vote for him without being struck down from the heavens. The single most compelling commercial of the campaign shows Robert Wagner Jr., the son of the revered former mayor, explaining why he is supporting Giuliani although a "staunch Democrat" for his entire life.
The bottom line is a campaign being waged at the least subtle or substantive level -- endorsements, high-blown rhetoric, TV spots that counter the other side. At a time when voters everywhere seem to be looking for serious attempts to solve government problems, they are getting far less. The new politics has not quite made it to the Big Apple.