N.Y. voters strain to see through a fog of negative ads Electorate appears to be 'up for grabs'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- The voters here are being treated to a throwback political campaign in the contest for mayor between Democratic incumbent David N. Dinkins and Republican challenger Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Just a year after an incumbent president was unseated because he didn't pay enough attention to the serious concerns of the electorate, the campaign here has become just what New York mayoral campaigns always seem to become -- an exchange of attacks and negative commercials, a parade of prominent people offering their endorsements, an intense get-out-the-vote campaign and far more heat than light.

Although both candidates have taken positions on a wide variety of issues, no one would argue that those differences have crystallized in the consciousness of the voters. Nor is this likely since, for the first time in 32 years, it appears the campaign will come to an end without a face-to-face debate.

The result is an electorate very much up for grabs. As Enid Reingold, a longtime Democratic activist, put it: "I can't believe I still haven't decided, and I've never pulled the Republican lever in my life."

With the campaign in its final days, published opinion polls show the contest essentially even when a rigid screen is applied to identify those most likely to vote Tuesday. In both campaigns, the conventional wisdom is that the outcome will depend largely on which blocs of voters are least alienated by the whole exercise.

A month ago Mr. Dinkins seemed doomed. He was suffering from a pervasive judgment in the electorate that his performance in office had fallen far short of what was needed in a city overwhelmed by problems. His failure to act aggressively and promptly against blacks in the Crown Heights riots three years ago had cost him heavily among Jewish Democrats.

But today it is also clear that Mr. Giuliani, the former federal prosecutor the mayor defeated so narrowly four years ago, has not yet closed the sale with a convincing case that he is prepared to be do a better job at City Hall.

The central questions to be answered are clear. First, in a city in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-to-1, are there are enough Democrats alienated by Mr. Dinkins' performance to elect Mr. Giuliani? Second, will blacks vote in large enough numbers to compensate for whatever defections the mayor suffers among whites and particularly those Jewish voters preoccupied with the problem of crime?

Both candidates are using strategies that are designed to provide some reassurance to potential supporters while raising even more doubts about the opposition. In Mr. Dinkins' case, there has been a parade of big name Democrats rallying to his side late in the campaign -- President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, former vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Tipper Gore, former Mayor Abraham D. Beame and 17 of the 22 Hispanics from New York who serve in Congress, the state legislature or the City Council.

But whether this parade of stars is meaningful is an open question in a city in which there is so much palpable reaction against Mr. Dinkins' performance. "People can come in from out of town," says David Garth, the streetwise media consultant advising Mr. Giuliani, "but they don't have to live here."

Mr. Giuliani, meanwhile, is trying to provide some comfort level to voters who have been told repeatedly by the Dinkins campaign that he is too hotheaded and right wing to be acceptable in New York. What is clear is that the former prosecutor is a much more relaxed and self-assured candidate than he was in that first race four years ago -- to a degree that Mr. Garth says "Rudy's demeanor" will be his selling point in the final days.

Mr. Giuliani also has tried to disarm the race issue that runs all through the campaign, promising New Yorkers that he will appeal to a "higher instinct" and ask for their votes on the basis of his competence. "We don't want anybody to vote because of racial pride or ethnic pride or religious pride," he said.

Nor is the Republican challenger barefoot in the endorsement game. Perhaps his most effective commercial shows Robert Wagner Jr., son of the revered former mayor, sitting on a stoop and talking in low-key tones about how a "staunch Democrat" for his entire life can vote for Mr. Giuliani this time around.

Four years ago Mr. Dinkins captured about 25 percent of the white vote, including 34 percent of the Jewish vote, in winning by 40,000 votes. Polls show him getting less than 30 percent of the Jewish vote this time, but some experts on demographics argue that there have been enough white voters -- perhaps as many 60,000 -- who have left the city in the past four years that the mayor can survive with a smaller share.

Another important bloc is the roughly 13 percent of the electorate made up of Hispanics. Mr. Dinkins won a clear majority with these voters in 1989, and recent polls show him with a somewhat smaller majority this time. But Mr. Giuliani's so-called "fusion ticket" includes a highly respected Hispanic Democrat, Herman Badillo.

The key is probably black turnout. If enough blacks vote to make up 28 percent of the total, the share that showed up in exit polls last time, Mr. Dinkins probably can absorb his losses among whites and be re-elected. If the black share turns out to be only 25 percent to 26 percent, the professionals believe, the margin will be razor-thin either way. By the same token, should the black vote drop to 22 percent, Mr. Giuliani would likely to win.

There is also a second race-related imponderable in the situation. In most cases in which a white and black candidate are running against each other, opinion polls tend to overestimate the support for the black candidate -- presumably because of white voters unwilling to admit they intend to vote against a black. That has happened repeatedly in other cities and states.

If that phenomenon is working in this campaign, then the polls apparently showing Mr. Dinkins even with or slightly ahead of Mr. Giuliani are really painting a picture of a Dinkins defeat.

But some strategists believe that what consultant Hank Morris calls "the lie factor" in the polls may not be as substantial in a second campaign. As one Democratic operative here put it: "They have plenty of good reasons to vote against Dinkins this time. They don't have any reason to hide it."

Enid Reingold, that undecided Democrat, is a case in point. "I don't care if he's black anymore," she said. "What I care is can I walk down the corner without getting hit on the head. Can Rudy Giuliani fix that?"

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