If he can make it here ...

Arizona Sen. John McCain's toughest opponent in the New York primary is not George W. Bush, but the state's Byzantine process for qualifying for the ballot.

Published December 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

John McCain was in New York recently doing what presidential candidates like to do best in the cash capital of the world -- raise money. Supporters sidled up for photos with the war hero as his two chief New York supporters looked on beaming: the glittering, blue-eyed Georgette Mosbacher, his national campaign co-chair, and the silver-haired Borough President Guy Molinari, the Republican king of Staten Island.

But far from the wooden ship models and carved moldings of the New York Yacht Club in midtown, the real campaign for New York was taking place. On a freezing cold evening in the Rosebank section of Staten Island, the biting wind blowing off the New York Harbor, Frank Peters was knocking on doors.

Comparing addresses with a pink-bound printout from the Board of Elections, Peters, a veteran whose day job is captain of the Staten Island Ferry, was bounding up stoops and ringing on door bells. Bell No. 1: No answer. Bell No. 2: Mommy doesn't speak English. Bell No. 3: No answer. Bell No. 4: Daddy's not in. Bell No. 5: A hit!

Peters utters a name from his list of registered Republicans. "That you?" he asks. "Mmm hmm" comes the reply. "My name is Frank Peters. I'm with the McCain campaign. We're trying to collect signatures to get him on the ballot."

The door is pushed shut. "No thank you."

Finally, at bell No. 6, Peters gets a yes, from a woman who knows him from work. She escorts him to a neighbor's home, where he gets two more signatures.

After half a hour, Peters has three signatures to show for his efforts. More than 500 are needed in this congressional district alone. And this effort must be repeated in each of New York's 31 congressional districts.

For the next month, the streets of New york will be peppered with people like Peters, waging an uphill battle to get McCain on the ballot in New York.

More than 40 percent of all election lawsuits in the country are filed in New York, political consultants say, because the state's election law is so Byzantine. Despite rule changes after the 1996 presidential race that ostensibly eased ballot access, it's still harder to get on the ballot in this state than in any other state in the country, with the possible exception of Virginia. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has the backing of New York Gov. George Pataki and the state Republican Party, with its army of experienced signature gatherers, will certainly get a spot. So will publisher Steve Forbes, who can dip into his seemingly limitless financial resources. But McCain, with sparse funds and a rag-tag group of inexperienced volunteers, might not make it.

"It will be tough, tough, tough," to get on the ballot in New York, acknowledges Mosbacher. So can McCain win without a portion of New York's 101 Republican delegates? "It will be tough, tough, tough."

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

In 1996, former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato put the vast resources of the Republican machine to work for his chosen candidate, former Sen. Bob Dole. Then it was even harder to get Republicans on the ballot. You had to collect valid signatures from 5 percent of Republicans in each congressional district. Valid meant the full name signed exactly at it appeared on a voter registration form. The correct assembly district and election district had to be entered for each voter. The proper county. "New York" not "Manhattan." "Kings" not "Brooklyn." And it all had to be in blue or black ball-point pen. Petitions had to be submitted bound in a certain way, with carefully entered tallies. Getting any of this wrong could result in having a candidate knocked off the ballot.

But then two things happened. Steve Forbes, represented by civil rights attorney Richard Emery, went to federal court to defend his petitions and won, opening up the ballot for himself and Pat Buchanan. And the relentless bad press that D'Amato and Pataki got for trying to prevent New York Republicans from choosing among presidential candidates caused D'Amato to admit he'd made a mistake and the governor to promise to rewrite the law.

And he did.

Under current law, you only need half a percent of a district's registered Republicans to get on the ballot. That ranges from 89 in Major Owen's congressional district in central Brooklyn to 890 in John Sweeney's in the capitol region, which includes Republican-rich areas like Saratoga County. You don't need to put the election district or the assembly district.

But that doesn't mean it's easy. "They've eliminated some of the minutia, but its still a very time consuming process," says Gerry O'Brien, McCain's New York political director. "There are other states like New Jersey where to get on the ballot you just have to collect 2,000 signatures. There's no district-by-district or house-to-house fight. In other states you simply post a bond with the secretary of state or the government for $500 or $1,000 and you're automatically on the ballot."

In New York you still have to run 31 separate petitioning operations. You still have to use blue or black ball-point pens. You still have to put "New York" county, not "Manhattan." And if someone accidentally puts yesterday's date on a petition after 12 people have put today's date, the entire petition is tossed out.

"The requirements that the election lawyers pick over like carrion in the desert are just incredible," says Emery. "Judges throw these petitions out for the most minute reasons. Petitions have to be folded in certain ways and signed in certain ways and the verifications have to be done in certain ways and unless thing are done virtually perfectly you can be denied access to the ballot."

Proponents of the new rules say they're designed to make sure only credible candidates with some voter support get on the ballot. It would be hard to argue that McCain, who is running second in the polls in New York, doesn't easily clear both those hurdles, but his supporters are still worried.

Guy Molinari, who has successfully installed members of Congress (and former members of Congress, including his own daughter, Susan) and other elected officials is no political slouch, but his support for McCain came late and only after a bitter falling out with Gov. Pataki over a list of grievances, including Pataki's late and lukewarm support of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's likely U.S. Senate campaign bid and the governor's reluctance to grant clemency to a police officer convicted of an illegal search in pursuit of a stolen police radio. (The clemency offer eventually came.) Still, Molinari aside, McCain has almost no political pros on his side in New York, and the college students and veterans that make up his ground troops may not be savvy enough to overcome the hurdles.

So far, the other camps aren't saying much about their plans, if any, to try to knock McCain off the ballot. (Unchallenged petitions are simply certified.) Jeff Buley, a lawyer for the state GOP (who, as counsel to the New York Senate in 1996, helped write the current law) says "right now the plan of the Bush campaign is not to wage an all-out offensive in terms of qualifying for the ballot -- they intend to win at the polls." But he adds: "They will make sure the petitions are legitimate."

The McCain people say they're more worried about Forbes, who was the one who helped open up this process in the first place. Bill Dal Col, Forbes' campaign manager, insists his team is in favor of ballot access for all. "If anything, we think New York should come into line with the other states. The czars of new York still want to rule who be on the ballot." So, then, the Forbes campaign won't be challenging McCain's petitions? "I didn't say that!" he parries. "It depends on if they challenge our petitions. I would expect the Bush people would be doing that."

By the time the 1996 primary came around, Dole had won enough states to make it pretty clear he was going to be the nominee, and he won handily in New York, even with Forbes on the ballot in 31 congressional districts and Buchanan on the ballot in 23. That year, New York voters got to choose among three Republicans.

This year, even with the looser rules, they may not.

By Andrea Bernstein

Andrea Bernstein is a New York journalist.

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John Mccain R-ariz.