Koch: Down but Not Out in New York Mayoral Primary

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN his early days as mayor of New York, Edward Irving Koch loved to gauge his popularity. ``How'm I doin'?'' was his trademark question. Folks leaped from the crowd to shake his hand and respond, ``Just great, Ed.'' Mr. Koch isn't asking anymore; he doesn't want to know. On the eve of his fourth mayoral campaign, only one out of three voters thinks he's doing a good job.

The mayor rode a tide of popularity for his role in bringing New York City out of its fiscal crisis of the 1970s and was widely admired for his ``I Love New York'' boosterism that helped keep large corporations from moving out of the Big Apple.

But these days Koch is blamed for carrying both his priorities and his outspoken nature too far.

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Critics say his push for economic growth has been unplanned and has resulted in New York becoming a less appealing place to live. They blame him for policies that they say have enriched developers while increasing poverty. Frustrated residents point to a dramatic, crack-fueled rise in crime, a crisis in city schools, a health-care system unprepared to cope with the AIDS epidemic, and a homeless problem that becomes more palpable each week. A spate of scandals involving high administration officials has further soured the public on him.

Koch's brash personal manner and tendency to shoot from the hip, which once seemed to appropriately mirror the ``New York Persona,'' now simply grates, and has resulted in the alienation of many. His harsh criticism of Jesse Jackson in last year's presidential primaries angered many blacks, and his seemingly approving comments about British handling of Northern Ireland inflamed local Irish-Americans.

This year, he has compared the tactics of one opponent, City Comptroller Harrison Goldin, who like Koch is Jewish, with those of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. ``His mouth seems to get further detached from his brain as the years go by,'' says Lawrence Kehoe, a Manhattan Democrat.

Among the powerhouses eager to topple Koch are Manhattan Borough president David Dinkins, who has an excellent chance of becoming New York's first black mayor, and Rudolph Giuliani, a former United States attorney who is a local hero for his successful prosecutions of Mafioso, Wall Street inside-traders, and drug dealers.

Mr. Dinkins, who faces Koch in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, is everything the mayor is not - calm, genial, a builder of consensus, if an uninspiring speaker. He is likely to take almost all of the black vote, along with a big share of the sizable Hispanic vote.

``Race is going to be part of the equation,'' says Geoff Garin, a Washington pollster who has surveyed New York voters for a labor coalition. Koch says he wants to avoid the racial overtones of the Chicago mayoral race, and has said he hopes Jesse Jackson and other black leaders stay away. Yet some experts say the mayor will use the issue to his advantage in largely white, middle-class neighborhoods outside liberal Manhattan.

Also expected to seek the Democratic nomination are Mr. Goldin, and Richard Ravitch, a businessman who previously ran the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. If no Democrat gets 40 percent of the primary vote, a Sept. 26 runoff will determine who faces the Republican nominee in November, and that's likely to be Mr. Giuliani.

Giuliani's Mr. Clean image contrasts with that of Koch, Dinkins, and Goldin, all of whom have at least minor blemishes on their records to answer for. Giuliani is expected to easily win the Republican primary over Ronald Lauder, a former ambassador and cosmetics fortune heir.

Though Koch is down - polls show him getting beaten by Dinkins and clobbered by Giuliani - he's not out. The feisty mayor is stepping up his already frantic schedule, and is using the perks of office to plaster his face and number around town, advising voters to call him with their problems.

Koch says if he beats his Democratic rivals, he expects them to remain loyal to their party and support him. But the inimitable Koch says that if he loses, he reserves the right to run in the general election as an independent.

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