Pataki Shifts Leftward in Bid to Recapture Governorship ; GOP Incumbent in New York Woos Democratic Stalwarts in Rare Three- Way Race

Article excerpt

Assemblyman Vito Lopez is giving visitors to his Brooklyn district a short tour. Look behind me, the Democrat says, pointing to a row of townhouses. "Four years ago, this was just empty lots with rats and garbage."

Across the street, at another new construction site for a Youth Center, a big sign explains that the money for all this has come from Albany - with Gov. George Pataki's name in bold letters. It's one of the reasons Mr. Lopez and other prominent Latino Democrats are here to cross party lines and support Mr. Pataki.

The Lopez endorsement illustrates the quiet transformation of one of the nation's most prominent governors. Mr. Pataki, elected as a conservative eight years ago, is now seeking moderate Democrat votes to win his third term.

He is making inroads into the constituency of his main opponent, Democrat Carl McCall, by making deals with unions, funneling money into minority communities, and supporting healthcare issues. Last week, he even won the approval of a homosexual group, which had never backed a Republican.

It is a remarkable change for a politician whose main issue eight years ago was bringing back the death penalty.

"It's been quite a transformation for George Pataki," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "He's gone from a conservative republican who defeated Mario Cuomo to the left of his own party."

Unexpected transformation

The extent of Pataki's political swing is unusual in American politics. The closest comparison is former President Gerald Ford, once considered a conservative, now viewed as a liberal Republican. "Some politicians have made more modest moves, but no one has done what Pataki's done as far as I know."

There are national political implications for this shift. Pataki once thought about running for higher office as either president or vice president, but he may now be far too liberal for his party.

Yet, the strategy is working in the Empire State. A Marist poll in early October found he has a 16-point lead over McCall, who is bidding to become New York's first African-American governor. Last week, Mr. McCall had to negotiate with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, Terry McAuliffe, to get new money for ads. In part to avoid taking the blame for a McCall loss, the DNC complied.

"Don't count McCall out," says G. Oliver Koppel, a former Democratic state attorney general. …