New York voters look for Giuliani replica

Tomorrow's primary election will narrow the choices for 'toughest job in the world.'

Even before Sept. 11, being mayor of New York was often called the toughest job in the world. Since then, few would argue with that description - and virtually everyone agrees that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has responded to the crisis with a strong show of leadership.

But the job won't be his for much longer.

In fact, as the planes hit the World Trade Center two weeks ago, many New Yorkers were casting their votes for who should succeed Mr. Giuliani, who is nearing the end of his second term and is prevented by law from seeking a third. That primary election was postponed and will now be held tomorrow - under some of the most difficult and unusual circumstances in the city's history.

On one hand, many New Yorkers say they are reluctant to go to the polls at all, seeing politics as irrelevant and even petty in the wake of the catastrophe. Indeed, the candidates themselves have largely refrained from campaigning during the past two weeks.

Yet there's no doubt that the job has suddenly taken on a far greater level of importance, as residents consider who is best prepared to lead the city's recovery effort and protect them in the future. In this sense, the New York election may provide insight into how the tragedy might impact politics on a national scale, as voters suddenly acquire a new set of priorities and demands.

"Whoever is elected mayor of New York has a much bigger problem on their hands than they thought they did. And people will go to the polls looking for the person that they feel will best address this problem," says Daedre Levine, a political consultant here.

In many ways, the type of candidate voters seem to want in the wake of the attacks is one who is as much like Giuliani as possible - if not Giuliani himself. (Experts predict there will likely be a number of write-in votes for Giuliani.)

According to a new Marist poll, 91 percent of New Yorkers think Giuliani has done an "excellent" or "good" job handling the crisis. Moreover, the quality they most want in their next mayor is the ability to "get things done." Still, the majority of voters said they did not want to overturn the term-limit law in order to allow Giuliani to run again.

"Clearly, there's high praise for the job Giuliani has done during this difficult time for the city," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. "And had he been on the ballot, I'm sure he would win reelection handily right now. But that doesn't necessarily translate into people wanting to change the rules."

Who's polling well

The Marist poll indicates that public advocate Mark Green holds a slight lead on the Democratic side, though it will likely not be enough to prevent a runoff. Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone could still pose a challenge, with comptroller Alan Hevesi trailing behind. For the Republicans, media mogul Michael Bloomberg seems likely to win easily over former Congressman Herman Badillo.

Some New Yorkers have called on officials to postpone the election, allowing Giuliani to stay on for another year. But others see the primary as the most fitting response to the terrorist attack, symbolizing the strength of the democratic process.

"We do have a system, and we have to stand by that system," says Mary Carroll, an assistant in a Manhattan law firm. "We have to have as much normalcy as possible."

Normalcy, however, may be a stretch. Widespread confusion as to the new date for the primary may keep turnout unusually low, say experts. Residents of lower Manhattan will have to figure out where to vote, as their normal polling places will not be open. And many New Yorkers who have already voted may not realize that they have to vote again.

More problematic, the Board of Elections, which is located downtown, has not been able to get its computer system running - so the election results may not be known for up to a week.

Even if all these technical obstacles are overcome, many New Yorkers may not feel up to voting.

"Emotionally, I'm barely ready to go to the polls - and I do this for a living," says Ms. Levine, the political consultant.

For those who do make it to the polls, Levine predicts that the recent events will likely have a profound impact on how they view the candidates. "I think voters will be looking much more at leadership qualities and financial background, because this has caused an even worse economy than we already had," she says.

Ms. Carroll, the legal assistant, says her priorities as a voter have shifted somewhat. Eating her lunch in Bryant Park, she says she already voted two weeks ago, but she may now change her vote, putting a greater premium on things like experience and "depth of commitment."

But many add that no amount of experience could prepare the future mayor for the daunting task that lies before him. Not only will the winner be responsible for rebuilding lower Manhattan and keeping the rest of the city safe and secure, but he'll have to do it with dwindling tax revenues.

Campaign issues shelved

"I wouldn't want to win this election," says Joe Mercurio, a New York political consultant. During the campaign, the candidates all focused on issues like education and race relations. Now, he says, "they're going to have to redirect city money into things that have nothing to do with what they were looking to do in terms of public-policy changes."

Many have suggested that whoever wins the election should appoint Giuliani head of the reconstruction effort - which could pose yet another challenge for the future mayor, who may find himself overshadowed.

Says Mr. Mercurio: "Giuliani's obviously going to be the 800-pound gorilla in the background."

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