NEW YORK — THE election is still a year and a half away. But the crowd at the starting gate - Democrats eager to race against New York Republican Alfonse D'Amato for his United States Senate seat - is large and growing. The known lineup so far includes New York Attorney General Robert Abrams and US Rep. Robert Mrazek, a five-term congressman from Long Island. Among four others weighing a run: former Congresswomen Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holtzman.
Senator D'Amato, the man who trounced the late Sen. Jacob Javits in the 1980 GOP primary and is now in his second term, may even face a Republican challenger: Rudolph Giuliani, the party's losing New York City mayoral candidate in 1989.
The reason for all this early interest: a cloud of charges of influence-peddling and misconduct hovering over D'Amato.
A formal complaint filed in July 1989 by Mark Green, the Democrat defeated by D'Amato in 1986, has been the subject of a preliminary probe by the Senate Ethics Committee for the last 20 months. A committee staff member says no decision has been made on whether or not to hold hearings.
Many of the charges concern use of the senator's influence to direct federal grants for Housing and Urban Development projects and housing to major campaign contributors, friends, and relatives. The senator is also accused of arranging military contracts for major campaign contributors.
Recent public polls show D'Amato's approval ratings below the 50 percent mark. ``It always attracts attention when you pass the midfield stripe - the numbers have come down noticeably in the last two years,'' says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The latest Marist poll, last September, gave D'Amato a 42.3 percent approval rating. But D'Amato is considered a formidable fighter. He relishes his description as ``a pothole senator.'' He insists, through his staff, that he is innocent of all charges and was only doing his job.
``We're confident that we will win and win big in 1992,'' says a spokesman.
Democrats agree that the senator is no pushover.
``D'Amato is for the Republican Party what [former Mayor] Ed Koch was [for the Democrats] in New York,'' says New York State Democratic Committee spokesman William Cunningham. ``D'Amato is a political machine. He just campaigns and he doesn't stop.... Fighting D'Amato is an endurance contest.... He will scorch the earth of New York to hold that Senate seat.''
``He's somewhat vulnerable ... but he's a long way from being finished,'' observes Ira Katznelson, dean of the graduate faculty of political and social science at the New School for Social Research. Yet he says the outcome of the Senate probe could still deal a ``devastating'' blow to the senator.
``D'Amato has long had an image as a feisty, successful, down-to-earth pork-barrel provider for New York,'' says Dean Katznelson. Though that image carries a certain ``negative tilt in ethical terms,'' he says many voters overlook it to a degree if the goods are delivered. ``But it does create a negative halo effect that people don't like to associate with their United States senator,'' he says.
Still, D'Amato is known as one of the Senate's most successful fund raisers. In the 1986 race he spent close to $13 million, more than 8 times as much as Mr. Green. Though state Democratic leaders say he is raising money less quickly than at this point in the last campaign, a D'Amato spokesman says: ``We're actually significantly ahead of where we were then.''
Though registered Democrats in New York state outnumber Republicans by 1.3 million, the D'Amato Senate seat has been in Republican hands for more than three decades.
The senator was an early and vocal hawk in the conflict against Iraq; he even urged economic sanctions against Baghdad last May, more than two months before the invasion of Kuwait.
To the extent that Republicans reap political benefit from allying with the White House during the Persian Gulf crisis, New York's incumbent senator could pick up votes.
Though he may face a GOP primary challenge, D'Amato moved swiftly in January to fill a Republican state chairman vacancy with a longtime ally, William Powers, an upstate county chairman who coordinated D'Amato's 1980 primary win. The incumbent senator also has close ties with New York Senate majority leader Ralph Marino and is looked on with favor by the state's Conservative Party, a valuable asset these days for any New York Republican.
Meanwhile, former prosecutor Guiliani is on the outs with state conservatives.