GOP Turncoat Leads N.Y. Dems Early Polls Show Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross Is Front-Runner among Democrats in the New York Gubernatorial Race

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New York's Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross sits back in her chair and the tone of her voice changes just slightly as she recalls the "watershed" day when she decided she was no longer a Republican.

It was April 8, 1997. In a bid to help a seriously ill truck driver, she was trying to get the Patients Fair Appeals Act out of committee in Albany. The act required insurance companies to pay for the treatment called for by a patient's doctor - even if the insurer disagreed.

"Every single Democrat voted for me, for my bill, and every single Republican voted to not let it out of committee," recalls Mrs. Ross. "It was clear to me that I was a member of a party that put politics ahead of patients and I have no patience with that." As it turned out, Gov. George Pataki's patience with Ross ran out, too. Nine days later, he sent her a letter saying that she would not be on the party ticket this November. "They concluded she was not a team player," says Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City. Last fall, Ross switched parties. Now, she's the gubernatorial front-runner for the Democrats and faces a handful of men in the September primary. According to a poll released last week, Ross leads the Democratic pack but trails Governor Pataki by 27 percentage points. As an advocate of education and consumer-oriented health-care reform, Ross will attract voters, supporters say. And her husband, Wilbur Ross, is a Wall Street financier wealthy enough to keep her campaign coffers full. To her detractors - and Pataki's office is perhaps the most vitriolic - Ross is politically radioactive. "The only thing we're saying about her is that you are dealing with an irrational woman who is making irrational statements that are factually incorrect," says Zenia Mucha, the governor's press secretary. "She doesn't stand for anything other than her own self-promotion." On the Democratic side, the men she faces in the primary are dredging up statements she made as a member of the Pataki administration. "There's not enough space to list all the people who are after her," says Jay Severin, a Republican political consultant. If she gets the nod from the Democrats, it would be a remarkable turn of events. Only four years ago, Ross was considered a conservative Republican. …