NEW YORK — RONALD LAUDER is a conservative guy in a liberal town; a Republican in one of the most Democratic cities in North America. So what makes him think he can become mayor of New York City? For one thing, the heir to the Est'ee Lauder cosmetics empire and former US ambassador to Austria thinks New Yorkers are becoming more conservative. He's for the death penalty, more police, lower taxes, and less government. And he's a businessman.
``New York City is a $26.6 billion business, and should be run that way,'' Mr. Lauder says. ``More and more people say the city needs a businessman running it.''
That is, instead of a prosecutor. His opponent in the Sept. 12 GOP primary, Rudolph Giuliani, is a high-profile, popular former US attorney who won convictions against corrupt politicians, Mafiosi, high-level drug dealers, and Wall Street inside traders. At this point, Mr. Giuliani, a moderate, is far ahead in the polls. Both men face the reality that New York last elected a Republican, John Lindsay, in 1969 - and a liberal at that.
Being a businessman, Lauder knows the value of advertising. So far, he has spent a remarkable $8.5 million getting his name across. That alone makes him a formidable candidate. ``When somebody is writing $8 million or $9 million worth of checks in a campaign with 400,000 voters,'' says Norman Adler, a political consultant, ``Donald Duck would be a serious candidate.'' And Mr. Adler believes Lauder could do better than expected if there is a low turnout in the GOP primary.
Lauder chose not to participate in New York City's new public financing system. ``I don't want to use taxpayers' money,'' he says. ``I owe nobody, I made no deals. All the other candidates had to make various political deals, I'm sure.''
His spending has opened him to criticism. ``It's obscene,'' says Julian Palmer, executive director for New York state Common Cause, a citizen's watchdog group. He says Lauder is expected to spend as much as $20 million, nearly three times the previous record of $7 million Mayor Edward Koch spent in 1985. ``It makes people feel democracy is for sale.''
Lauder is anxious to establish leadership credentials, but his efforts sometimes backfire. When Felix Bloch - who is under investigation for alleged spying - made headlines, Lauder did too. He says that as ambassador to Austria he forced Mr. Bloch's removal from the embassy. But some State Department officials accuse Lauder of grandstanding - of having little to do with Bloch's departure from Vienna, and of personal ineffectiveness as ambassador.
He is also dogged by criticism that he has neither the qualifications nor the dynamism to run the largest United States city. Besides a short governmental r'esum'e, Lauder is saddled by an uninspiring speaking style and a tendency toward fumbling or repeating himself.
Thus far, he has run a rough TV campaign against Giuliani, hammering away at the former prosecutor for not being conservative enough. Giuliani's slippage in recent polls suggests the negative commercials may be working.
Some political observers say Lauder is merely a stalking horse for Mayor Koch, softening up Giuliani for a possible general-election battle against Koch by hitting him from the right while the mayor attacks him from the left. But Mr. Adler, doesn't buy that. ``Why would Ron Lauder take out of his own money millions of dollars to be a stalking horse for Ed Koch?'' he asks. ``What could his reward be?''