A happy chant -- "Al who? Al who?" -- resounded though the Holiday Inn ballroom in Hempstead, Long Island, just before Alfonse D'Amato, US senator-elect from New York, delivered his acceptance speech.
But in narrowly defeating Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman in a three-way race to unseat incumbent Sen. Jacob K. Javits -- who received only 11 percent of the vote -- Mr. D'Amato declared his victory was really one for another unknown entity on Capitol Hill: the middle-income American.
In fact, D'Amato's slim victory is, to a large extent, a microcosm of Ronald Reagan's much more impressive showing nationwide. Like Mr. Reagan, he captured the heavily populated suburbs and did surprisingly well among blue-collar union members.
D'Amato also has jumped from the relative obscurity of Hempstead Town Hall -- where he was town supervisor -- to Capitol Hill with the help of "Right Conservative Republicans," after a generation of liberal Republican domination forged by the late Nelson A. Rockefeller, former state Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz, and Senator Javits. He will be the first Italian-American US senator from New York.
Javits, attacked by D'Amato because of his age and illness, campaigned enthusiastically to the end. With gracious good humor he described his overwhelming defeat as "water over the dam." He is widely expected to be offered a diplomatic post in the Reagan administration.
Miss Holtzman, who came from behind to win a hard-fought Democratic primary, definitely would have won the election had Javits pulled out of the race (as many advisers urged him to do), political analysts here say. AS it was, she won almost two-thirds of the heavy Jewish vote statewide and a majority of the New York City vote. So close was the election that if she had had Javits's share of the Jewish vote she would have beaten D'Amato.
Ironically, in D'Amato rise from obscurity -- as recently as several weeks before the election 35 percent of the respondents to one poll said they didn't known who he was -- published reports questioning his integrity probably made him more of a household name than did anything else.
Those reports, which his opponents were quick to stress in their campaigns, served to win recognition for D'Amato that even his expensive advertising campaign and the strong Nassau County Republican machine couldn't achieve.
But he deflected carefully allegations -- that he had deposited Hempstead tax revenues in interest-free bank accounts in return for campaign loans and that he was guilty of patronage abuses and other irregularities -- as attempts by liberal-leaning news media and political opponents to halt a growing conservative tide in New York State.
As D'Amato prepares to go to Washington, questions about his integrity are likely to persist here. But at least the answer to the question "Al who?" now is as obvious as "Jimmy who?" was four years ago.