Anger Obscures Issues as D'Amato Seeks Another Term

IAN JOHNSON

October 25, 1992|By IAN JOHNSON

NEW YORK — New York-- There may be some issues separating Boring Bob and Senator Pothole, but they lie dormant under the heavy layer of mud and anger that has settled over this bizarre campaign for U.S. Senate.

It has become a race that makes the national contest, with its truth-fudging and character assassination, seem like a contest between Honest Abe and the Good Humor Ice Cream man. In New York, names are being called and charges trumped up that could make one forget that the race is between two fundamentally different candidates.

Robert Abrams, the New York attorney general, is an old-fashioned liberal, the kind of person Republicans used to have fun ripping the guts out of. He wants an expensive health care plan that Bill Clinton wouldn't dream of supporting. He's also picked up labor and feminist endorsements like litter off the street. He's dull and has the killer instincts of a goldfish.

Alfonse M. D'Amato, the 12-year Republican incumbent, is no fire-breathing fundamentalist but hardly molded after Mr. Abrams. A loud, self-aggrandizing moderate conservative, he is flexible on most issues except his opposition to abortion. He likes to point out that he has more in common with Mr. Clinton than Mr. Abrams does, favoring, for example, the death penalty and welfare reform. He has little time for vision, relishing his nickname of Senator Pothole, the big guy who can get things done for the little guys, provided they're New Yorkers, of course.

At first, it seemed a given that Mr. D'Amato's history of ethical misconduct in the Senate would help Mr. Abrams to victory and the Democrats to an enlarged majority in the Senate. It also seemed that the two might engage in a lively debate over their policy differences.

But in a year when change is the key word, this Senate race has taken on a depressingly familiar mud color, as twisted charges abound of unethical behavior, fascism and propaganda.

It started the day Mr. Abrams won the Democratic primary in September by defeating former vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. Ms. Ferraro had become embroiled in a mud-slinging fight, and Mr. Abrams had slipped by to squeak out a victory. Mr. D'Amato immediately started airing commercials, shedding crocodile tears over honorable Ms. Ferraro being stabbed in the back by no-goods like Mr. Abrams.

With Mr. Abrams financially exhausted after burning nearly $4 million in the primary on TV ads, Mr. D'Amato followed up this first lob with a pre-emptive strike. Himself reprimanded for violating Senate ethics, he deployed his $9.2 million in campaign funds and scudded Mr. Abrams for taking campaign donations from lawyers while attorney general.

What wasn't said in the ads was that Mr. Abrams has never been charged with pandering to his contributors, while Mr. D'Amato has. The Senate didn't find Mr. D'Amato guilty, but it did rap his knuckles for conducting "the business of his office in an improper and inappropriate manner." His brother has been indicted for using his Senate stationery to lobby for Navy contracts, and Mr. D'Amato is now also under investigation for tampering with a grand jury.

This would seem ample ammunition for a professional politician like Mr. Abrams, but he has remained broke, able to field only a few counterattack ads. Instead of pressing the flesh, he's been dialing well-heeled Democrats in the hopes of raising a few million. Thanks to help from Gov. Mario Cuomo's campaign contributors' list, his recent efforts have raised almost $1 million, but Mr. D'Amato has roughly four times as much to spend.

Reduced to a fund-raiser, Mr. Abrams has been unable to capitalize on his clean record or Mr. D'Amato's reputation in Washington as a lovable lightweight with no influence on any major committees.

In desperation, Mr. Abrams lashed out foolishly, calling Mr. D'Amato a "fascist" who uses "the Big Lie technique for the purposes of political propaganda."

Now in his element, Mr. D'Amato acted stunned. He said he was hurt. He was shocked. He wailed to the media that it wasn't just a personal slur, but that it somehow defamed all Italian-Americans, presumably because the word fascism is Italian in origin.

Later, Gov. Cuomo picked up the politically-correct cry, and urged Mr. Abrams to apologize. Mr. D'Amato then upped the stakes, saying that all Roman Catholics were also upset, unintentionally drawing some sort of link between fascism, Italians and Catholicism that the most ardent critic of the church's role in World War II probably wouldn't venture to suggest.

The onslaught reached its peak 10 days ago on a "shock radio" talk show. With both candidates sitting just a few feet away from each other, the microphone melted with Mr. D'Amato's thrusts, ripostes and lunges.

"Let me ask you something, did you say I was a fascist or didn't you, Bob," Mr. D'Amato said.

"Of course the world knows I said that, and I apologized to . . . ," Mr. Abrams said.

"To who?"

"To the whole world, but . . ."

"Oh, did you apologize to me?"

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