It's Nov. 7. You've just walked into a voting booth somewhere in New York, and you're about to cast your vote for president of the United States and U.S. senator.
You're a Republican, so you vote for Gov. George W. Bush, and then, below his name, you flip the switch for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani. But your eyes start to wander to other parts of the ballot and matters start to get a little confusing. A couple of rows to the right lies the name of some Independence Party presidential candidate you've never heard of. And below his name? Independence Party U.S. Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani! And a few more columns over to the right is the name of the Liberal Party's presidential candidate, Al Gore, and below his name it's ... Liberal Party U.S. Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani?!?
What, you may ask, is going on here?
This scenario is not as unlikely as it sounds, thanks to a complex, and peculiarly New York, series of steps that could determine the outcome of the closely watched New York Senate race.
Some background: For several decades, New York has boasted two influential third parties -- the Liberals and the Conservatives. Unlike in other states, where third parties typically run their own candidates, in New York viable Republican or Democratic contenders in close races traditionally seek the cross-endorsement of either the Liberals or the Conservatives. Vote totals received on multiple lines for the same candidate are then added together. A handful of other states legally permit these so-called fusion candidacies, but it virtually never happens; most states ban the practice.
In New York, the cross-endorsements are crucial. In the 1994 governor's race, for example, Republican George Pataki's 328,605 votes on the Conservative line provided his slim margin of victory over Democrat-Liberal Mario Cuomo.
These days, the figure everyone talks about is 26. That's the number of years since a New York Republican won statewide office without the endorsement of the Conservative Party, which was founded in 1962 by conservatives disenchanted with the state's peculiar brand of liberal Republicanism.
But it looks like Giuliani wants to end that streak now.
According to Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, when he and Giuliani met last April he told Giuliani that consideration for a Conservative endorsement depended on two things: Giuliani's supporting a ban on the procedure critics call "partial-birth" abortion and a refusal by the mayor to accept the endorsement of the Liberal Party, which has thrice endorsed Giuliani for mayor and whose head, Ray Harding, is a close mayoral advisor.
"If these things I laid out are too difficult," Long recalls telling the mayor, "let me know, because I'm not looking to hurt you and I'm not looking to get Hillary elected."
Since then, says Long, he's heard nothing from the mayor. "I don't know if he thought I was being insincere," explains Long in his gruff baritone. "If he did, he was wrong."
In the meantime, Long Island Republican Rep. Rick Lazio continues to publicly flirt with running in a primary against Giuliani, and possibly running as a Conservative Party candidate. Giuliani, meanwhile, has all but dared him to try.
Long, an ex-Marine, says he hasn't ruled out endorsing Giuliani as long as Giuliani meets his two conditions. But he does rule out leaving his party's line blank (which he did in Giuliani's race for reelection as mayor in 1997). At least two people have committed to running if called on, he says. One of those names will be revealed at the end of April. He is unmoved by the argument that such a candidate would only siphon votes away from Giuliani and help ensure Hillary Clinton's victory.
"Two evils are still evil," says Long. "I don't believe in the lesser of two evils."
And Giuliani sure doesn't look like he's courting Long these days.
"The first time I got elected mayor, the Conservative Party ran a candidate against me and we were able to win," Giuliani said last week at a town hall meeting on Long Island with Sen. John McCain at his side. "I don't think I should be twisting myself around for the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party or any party. They know who I am. If they think I'd be better than my opponent, please support me and I would be happy to have your support. If you think for some reason I wouldn't be, then support somebody else."
"I think he's drawing the wrong lessons from 'I didn't have the Conservative line in the city,'" said Republican strategist Kieran Mahoney, whose father and uncle founded the party in 1962. "It's a much more powerful party upstate in terms of drawing votes in a statewide election. It's hard for me to figure out the math being anything but a mistake on his part."
The Giuliani campaign would not comment, but some Republicans insist that the campaign is banking on New York State conservatives and Conservatives not wasting their vote on a third-party candidate when it means Hillary Rodham Clinton's ascension to the U.S Senate. Indeed, Monroe County Conservative Party Chairman Thomas Cook has actually started a federal PAC to raise money for mailings urging people not to vote for the Conservative candidate, assuming it's not Guiliani.
Then there is the Liberal Party. Founded in 1944 as an alternative to the increasingly communist-dominated American Labor Party, in recent years it has devolved into a vehicle for extracting patronage from the officials it helps elect. (The party is commonly derided as "neither liberal nor a party.")
The party is essentially a one-man show, run by lawyer-lobbyist Ray Harding. Alternately described over the years as a "one-man smoke-filled room" and "the Sidney Greenstreet of New York politics," Harding has a relationship with Giuliani that may be responsible for the single largest ethical blot on the mayor's tenure. Since Giuliani took office in 1994, his administration has filled city agencies with numerous Harding-connected appointees (including Harding's two sons), whom Harding's law firm has then proceeded to lobby.
Clinton advisor Harold Ickes, who has known Harding for more than 20 years, has had at least one discussion with the Liberal Party boss about a Clinton endorsement, but that scenario is looking increasingly unlikely. Last month, Harding's son Bob was elevated to deputy mayor. And Monday, Harding, who had been virtually invisible for months, told the Associated Press' Marc Humbert that Giuliani will seek the Liberal Party's endorsement, which essentially means that Giuliani will get it.
Further complicating matters is the likelihood that Harding's party will endorse Gore, putting Giuliani on a ticket headed by a man whose administration he has attacked for months. (Some strategists argue that such a lineup will actually help Giuliani in a state where Bush is expected to lose badly.)
But the most perilous situation for both candidates may involve the Independence Party, the New York affiliate of the national Reform Party.
Both the Giuliani and Clinton campaigns have had discussions with the various wings of the Independence Party, which could be influential. In 1998, 364,056 people voted for its gubernatorial candidate, Thomas Golisano. Last month, the party overtook the Conservatives in the number of registrants statewide -- 172,471 to 171,496 -- making it the state's largest third party.
But both the Clinton and Giuliani camps face similar dilemmas. First, the party is racked by divisions. Electronics consultant Jack Essenberg is in court battling for the party's chairmanship with Frank McKay, a rock-band manager from Long Island aligned with political activist and "social therapist" Lenora Fulani. So to whom precisely the Senate candidates need to talk is unclear. (If the candidates desire, they could probably force a primary within the party.)
Most perplexing, however, is the following sequence of events: The Independence Party's convention to determine its Senate candidate (or candidates, if there is a primary) will take place this spring. However, the national Reform Party's presidential candidate will not be announced until August. And the Independence Party won't announce its presidential candidate until September.
Thus, if either Clinton or Giuliani accepts an Independence Party endorsement, he or she runs the risk of running on a ticket headed by ... presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. At a press conference Monday, Giuliani campaign head Bruce Teitelbaum dismissed a question about this scenario as "hugely hypothetical."
Teitelbaum also offered a slightly cryptic coda. "You should not automatically assume that the nominee of the Reform Party will be Pat Buchanan, or if that does happen, [that] he'd automatically be the nominee of the Independence Party here in New York."
Indeed, New York's Independence Party isn't bound to endorse the Reform Party's presidential candidate and could vote to endorse someone else, thus breaking its affiliation with the national Reform Party.
Executive committee member Cathy Stewart, a Fulani ally and also a national
delegate to the Reform Party, says she will vote for Buchanan for
president. She also says that a vote to break the Independence Party's
affiliation with the Reform Party would have to be taken by the party's
state committee. But Essenberg -- who is backed by Donald Trump, a longtime
Giuliani ally and Buchanan foe -- said such a vote could be taken by the executive committee. And, Essenberg said, the possibility of choosing a
presidential candidate other than Buchanan "would be looked at very
strongly by the executive committee" if he successfully reclaims the New
York party's chairmanship.
Trump's office would not grant a request for an interview about the Independence Party and the Senate race.
A Democratic operative who advises Clinton's Senate campaign, which has already been endorsed by the labor-backed Working Families Party, said a potential alliance with the Independence Party was fraught with risk, but the potential gains were questionable.
New York's registered Liberals and Conservatives have voted on those lines for decades, but Independents may not have such deep alliances. "It's not like they've lost the habit of voting on a mainstream line, so I don't think the connection is sufficiently deep," said the operative. "I question the meaning and worth of the Independence Party to begin with. Also, with the top of their ticket getting decreasingly coherent, and identified with extremism, a lot of people are gong to start to wonder and go back to voting Republican, Democrat, Green, Right-to-Life or whatever."