Rochester, N.Y. — New York - from Broadway to Buffalo - has won a starring role in the long-running 1988 Democratic presidential race. The Empire State could be the open door that finally leads Michael Dukakis to the party's presidential nomination.
After dozens of indecisive primaries and caucuses, the Massachusetts governor has a chance here to take a commanding lead in the race for delegates when New Yorkers vote tomorrow.
Political analysts say Governor Dukakis will still have a long road ahead, even if he wins here. The latest tallies give Mr. Dukakis 882 delegates, fewer than half those needed for the nomination. But victory here means the prize should eventually be his. A win over Jesse Jackson and Albert Gore Jr., the other remaining candidates, would give Dukakis critical momentum as the campaign moves on to delegate-rich Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, and California.
On the other hand, if Dukakis stumbles in New York - and that is still possible - experts predict it will unleash a frantic search for a Democratic alternative.
Late polls show Dukakis remains out front in New York State, with about 45 percent of the potential Democratic vote. But the race seems to be tightening in the final hours.
``Nobody, and I mean nobody, takes this for granted,'' he told a small, $1,000-a-plate gathering of supporters here in Rochester over the weekend.
Both the Rev. Mr. Jackson and Senator Gore appear to be gaining ground as voting day nears. Mr. Gore's new strength is coming directly out of Dukakis's support.
Meanwhile, a Monitor survey of more than half of New York State's Democratic county chairmen finds broad concern that the long campaign will leave the party weak and divided.
The chairmen worry that if Dukakis wins the nomination and fails to include Jackson on his ticket, it will fracture the party by alienating millions of black voters. About one-third of the chairmen surveyed said disunity could be the party's greatest problem this fall against Republican George Bush.
The chairmen also report some unhappiness among Democratic voters with the contenders. A county chairman in the central part of the state observed: ``There's no enthusiasm here for any of the candidates.''
Public opinion polls by various organizations during the past few days give Dukakis as much as 49 percent of the New York vote. But Jackson continues to draw 30 to 37 percent support - better than he did in 1984, when he got 26 percent against Walter Mondale. Gore had less than 10 percent in the polls until this weekend, when a Washington Post/ABC survey put at 13 percent.
Jackson's campaign manager, Gerald Austin, observes that money is flowing into the preacher's campaign at a record rate. On the spending side, New York will be Jackson's first-ever million-dollar state, with $650,000 of that going for TV and radio ads, according to Mr. Austin.
Jackson is spending about $90,000 for Spanish-language TV and radio. He is picking up about one-third of the state's Hispanic vote, according to a Univision news poll.
In earlier primaries, Jackson often did well, even though he had less than $100,000 to spend. The impact of this new Jackson money is unknown and adds an element of uncertainty to the outcome.
Keith Frederick, a Democratic consultant in Washington, says Jackson has shown remarkable ability to muster black support, despite his earlier lack of resources. ``That doesn't just happen. It takes good, skillful organization,'' Mr. Frederick says.
Dukakis also has been forced to fend off Gore. Although the senator's campaign started slowly here, he picked up late endorsements from the New York Post and from Mayor Edward Koch of New York City.
A series of televised debates - some of which have been marked by sharp clashes between Gore and Dukakis - also will have an uncertain impact on voters.
In the Monitor survey, the county chairmen also made these points:
Economic issues are the top concern of Democratic voters this year. Although drug problems have been emphasized by all the candidates, the chairmen say the future of the job market is a far more critical and pressing issue to most Democrats.
Among the three candidates still in the race, Dukakis was judged to be the party's strongest possible contender against Vice-President Bush. Gore was second. None of the chairmen thought Jackson would be able to defeat Bush.
Monitor intern Kurt A. Peterson assisted with this story.