New York Mayoral Vote Could Turn on Race Issue

As voters head to the polls in state and local races across the nation tomorrow, many look to find issues amid shrill personal attacks

CAN the glamour of a Kennedy or a Streisand save Mayor David Dinkins from losing his bid for reelection? Or will a tireless campaign drag in enough disaffected Democrats to put challenger Rudolph Giuliani in Gracie Mansion?

New Yorkers will get a chance to answer those questions - which have pushed the Amy Fisher affair and radio ``shock jock'' Howard Stern off the front pages of the city's tabloids - when they go to the polls tomorrow.

Mayor Dinkins, a Democrat, is favored by a slight margin, but polls show an upset is possible. While most surveys give Dinkins a narrow lead, a New York Newsday/WABC-TV poll has Giuliani ahead by 3 percent. At any rate, most of the poll results are within the margin of error.

The mayor's race is so close going into its final day in large measure because about 15 percent of voters remain undecided. According to polls, many of them are dismayed by what they see as Dinkins' weak leadership, but they are put off by Giuliani's aggressive - some would say overbearing - manner.

Still, says Larry Higick, director of political surveys at Princeton Survey Research Associates, ``in a campaign like this one, the personalities don't matter much. Only race is a deciding factor.''

Dinkins, who is black, expects to win almost 90 percent of the black vote (which accounts for roughly 20 percent of the city's voting population). But he needs a strong turnout among liberal white Democrats and independents to win.

The large Hispanic population - which also accounts for 20 percent of voters - is up for grabs. While most Hispanics are Democrats, many of these Roman Catholic voters were alienated by Dinkins's support for the Rainbow Curriculum, a failed attempt by education administrators to introduce sex-education into city schools.

Mr. Higick figures Giuliani, who is Italian-American, has a good chance of attracting those swing voters. He points to nine similar US races since 1982 where the white candidate won a surprising number of swing votes. One apparent exception to the pattern was the 1989 New York mayoral election in which Dinkins defeated Giuliani by just 2 points. But, Higick notes, Dinkins had been leading in pre-election polls by up to 18 points.

Both candidates seem well aware that this election promises to be as close as the last one. But in the campaign's final weeks, they have chosen different tactics to woo undecided voters.

Dinkins has been staging ``photo ops'' with such star Democrats as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Hollywood singer/actress Barbara Streisand.

The mayor also has carefully cultivated his image as a benign elder statesman by hitching a ride on Air Force One when President Clinton came to New York City to stump for him.

Giuliani, on the other hand, has been on a gritty ``whistlestop'' tour, alighting from his silver van to greet subway riders, hug senior citizens, and talk earnestly with Jewish leaders.

The challenger, who had been on the defensive earlier in the campaign, also has aggressively attacked the incumbent. Faxes from the Giuliani offices to the news media have taken Dinkins to task for buying an $11,000 headboard for the mayor's mansion with taxpayers' money in 1990 and other alleged excesses.

For all the back and forth, the two candidates never managed to meet for a formal debate. The sticking point was the debate format.

Dinkins demanded that George Marlin, the Conservative Party candidate, be included in any meeting. Giuliani, who fears Mr. Marlin will siphon off his voters, refused to include the third-party contender.

The squabbling reached such a fever pitch that New York Newsday ran a photo of both candidates in swaddling clothes under the headline ``Two Big Babies.''

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