Candidate Koch takes his New York City show on road

It is 6:30 p.m. and the steaks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in downtown Oswego are getting cold. Tempers are rising. The keynote speaker, New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, a candidate for the New York Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination, has been delayed by a chance meeting with actress and friend Ethel Merman.

When the bedraggled, shirt-sleeved Koch finally arrives, few seem to associate the lanky, now tired-looking man with the sign behind the lectern proclaiming in bold, red letters: ''KOCH FOR GOVERNOR.'' Koch, who has risen at his usual 6 a.m. to work almost a full day at what he fondly calls ''the second toughest job in America,'' has been on the campaign trail upstate since 2 p.m.

He seems almost ready to fall asleep as the introductions drone on. But now it's his turn and it's as if someone had turned him on, like a floodlight. A Mark Anthony he is not. But the combination of a New York twang, hands that flap like the wings of a chicken, and his unmistakably sincere exasperation with the status quo - from joblessness to the shortcomings of civil service - soon earn him a vigorous reception. Or as vigorous as one might expect on a Friday night in downtown Oswego, where many in the audience had said they were leaning toward his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo. One Cuomo supporter simply calls Koch ''a political aberration.''

But let there be no doubt: Koch, in his own home-spun, man-in-the-street way, is an adept speaker.

Accompanying the mayor on his campaign swing - among the dozens he is making to woo the crucial if often sparse Democratic primary voters upstate - this reporter found that Koch nearly always won plaudits for his sincerity, fiscal conservatism, and outrageous sense of humor. But actual votes seemed much more illusive.

''That's a pickup truck!'' Koch yelled as one trundled by, trying to show he knows about life outside the big city. He was hoping to counter his detractors (''You've found all five?'' he had asked me earlier) who say Koch may be New York City personified but knows little about life elsewhere.

It's not that Koch isn't learning fast. He's milked cows, attended county fairs, quizzed farmers intelligently about their crops. But he may have to do a lot more than that to win upstate votes for the fast approaching Sept. 23 Democratic primary. The latest Gannett News Service poll showed Koch had only an eight-point lead over Cuomo, and that Cuomo had gained two points since the last poll.

Moreover, ''among Democrats most likely to vote'' in the primary, the poll put Cuomo three points ahead of Koch. Yet his biggest hurdle upstate - as hecklers weren't reluctant to tell him - remains the widely quoted interview he gave Playboy magazine earlier this year, in which he derided surburban and rural living.

Time after time, upstate voters along the campaign trail complained that the mayor had seriously offended them by his remarks. The comment, ''He still thinks of us as hicks,'' was fairly typical.

In a Monitor interview aboard the propeller-driven Cheyenne III plane he uses for short campaign jaunts, the mayor said ''the only people who ask me about the Playboy interview are reporters. Real people do not ask me about Playboy. . . . Watch, today it will come up at every meeting.''

And, indeed, it did.

Characteristically, Koch refuses to change the tenor of his remarks. Any other politician might modify his comments and admit, for instance, that other New York communities could be as exciting to live in as Gotham. Not Koch.

On the other hand, perhaps Koch would not have agreed to the Playboy interview in the first place if he had known that Democratic Gov. Hugh Carey was seriously considering not seeking a third term.

As it is, his comments in that interview have led voters in upper New York to worry lest he becomes governor, and his attention may be focused on the Big Apple at the expense of the rest of the state.

When he vigorously dismisses such criticism, as he does repeatedly, Koch angers those New York City Democrats who feel he should help solve the city's mammoth transportation, sanitation, and other service problems before seeking higher office.

If the mayor's bluntness loses him votes, it also wins some - even among many upstate Democrats and Republicans. ''Koch may say the wrong things sometimes,'' notes one veteran observer of the New York State political scene, ''but at least you know that he is not telling you one thing and just the opposite behind your back.''

As far as fund-raising is concerned, Koch is outdoing Cuomo. Koch forces have collected nearly $2.5 million, 21/2 times as much as the Cuomo camp. Despite the fact that Cuomo is picking up some support, as evidenced by the Gannett polls and recent endorsements from organized labor groups, insufficient funds are hampering his campaign.

Meanwhile, Koch can afford to make repeated visits to some largely Republican counties upstate that can yield, one of his aides said privately, ''fewer Democratic votes for him than one apartment building in Brooklyn.''

In doing so, Koch, of course, is looking beyond the Sept. 23 primary to the November general election. He would undoubtedly face millionaire Republican candidate Lewis E. Lehrman, whom most close observers expect will easily win his party's nomination against Paul Curran, a former United States district attorney for the southern district.

Koch strategists figure that they will need as many upstate Republican votes as possible - the vast majority of the state's registered Republicans live outside New York City - to defeat Lehrman. For one thing, Lehrman is a millionaire businessman who can afford to saturate the air waves with campaign commercials as he has already started to do. Second, and perhaps more important, Cuomo, who has already won the endorsement of the state's Liberal Party, has threatened to run on the Liberal line in the general election if he loses the Democratic primary to Koch. This would certainly siphon many Democratic votes away from Koch and give Lehrman a major advantage.

Since statewide, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 2 to 1, it seems it should be easy for Koch to win the gubernatoral election. But Empire State voters can be an unpredictable lot. However, if Koch wins the Democratic primary but cannot dissuade Cuomo from running as a Liberal Party candidate, he and the Democrats could be in big trouble this year.

On the campaign plane, Koch dismisses Cuomo by saying: ''Mario is the last tragic figure. In politics, he's a better 'Hamlet' than Lawrence Olivier!'' His aides roared with laughter.

But as a weary Koch was making his way to the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Oswego, a Koch aide responded quite differently, saying with a worried look, ''We have to take him seriously.''

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