New York's Liberal Party, a political force whose influence has frequently exceeded its comparatively small membership, may hold the balance in the US Senate race in the Empire State and perhaps even influence the outcome of the presidential contest.
In the process, the party, which over the years has generally found more Democrats than Republicans to its liking, will be backing two prominent members of the GOP -- presidential hopeful John B. Anderson and veteran US Sen. Jacob K. Javits -- who were both bypassed for nomination by their party.
The latter, toppled in the Sept. 9 state primary by fellow Republican Alfonse D'Amato, a conservative municipal official from Long Island, is assured of a place on the Nov. 4 ballot by his Liberal Party convention endorsement last June.
The sometimes maverick party's official backing of independent presidential candidate Anderson seems all but certain. It should become official Sept. 13 when some 300 of its leaders from around the state meet in New York City.
If the liberal activists go along with the overwhelming 32-to-2 recommendation of the party policy committee, this will be the first time in its nearly 37 years on the New York political scene that someone other than the Democratic nominee has received the group's support for the White House.
The party itself tends to be less of a force than it was during its heyday in the 1950s and '60s. But some politicos agree that since much of its constituency tends to be Democratic, a Liberal endorsement for Anderson could hurt President Carter (and conversely help Republican Ronald Reagan) in a state that has the second-highest number of electoral votes after California.
Senator Javits, even with the Liberals' backing -- which he has enjoyed throughout his long political career in the US House and Senate -- will face an uphill fight to hold onto the Senate seat he has occupied for the past 24 years.
To win a fifth term he must not only get by US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, the Democratic nominee, but also Mr. D'Amato, who now has both the Republican nod and the strong backing of the state's Conservative Party.
Javits and Holtzman -- both liberals -- may find themselves vying for the same votes. D'Amato could benefit from that. Conservatives who come out to vote for Reagan might be more motivated to support newcomer D'Amato.
Complicating the situation is the Javits endorsement of Reagan. This may make it awkward for the Republican presidential nominee to become very involved in D'Amato's behalf, lest in the process Javitz supporters become alienated and support independent Anderson or sit out the election.
Since the Liberal Party makes no pretense of being a major party -- with 67, 000 registrants it is considerably outnumbered in voter registration by both Democrats and Republicans -- there is little to suggest it could elect, on its own, any statewide candidate.
But its support over the years has been decisive in at least a few campaigns.
In 1969, for example, when disenchanted New York City Republicans denied renomination to then GOP mayor John V. Lindsay, the disappointed municipal chief executive ran for -- and won -- a second four-year term as the Liberal Party candidate.
As a political organizations, the Liberal Party has been more issue-oriented than either of the two major parties. As such, it chooses to support those whose views mirror most closely its positions, explains party vice-chairman F. Raymond Harding.
"We support quality Democrats, or liberal Republicans. And if there are none around, we encourage others to run," he explains.
Party roots stem from a walkout of several dissident union officials from an American Labor Party convention in June 1944. Dissidents had become disenchanted with what they viewed as "leftist" political trend within the labor party.
Six years ago, when Senator Javits last ran, he bested his Democratic challenger, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, by 250,000 votes.
Contributing substantially to the senator's re-election margin were some 241, 000 liberals who went along with 2.1 million Republicans. Mr. Clark, running as a Democrat, polled 1.97 million votes. Political newcomer Barbara Keating, the Conservative Party candidate, got 822,000 votes. Mr. Harding, a New York Attorney, who is today's Liberal Party mastermind, views his organization as no less a force than a decade ago when its enrollment was considerably larger -- 110,000.