``Welcome to the hardball capital of the world.'' That was the greeting New York State Democratic Party chairman Laurence Kirwan gave to Michael Dukakis, Albert Gore, and Jesse Jackson, the party's three main presidential contenders, as they began campaigning in and out of New York City.
New Yorkers rather chauvinistically think their primary is the premi`ere event of pre-election season. And because of the hotly contested Democratic race, the April 19 primary could figure prominently in the fortunes of each candidate.
But beyond the significance of the state's hefty 255 Democratic delegates, New York is a megastate for other reasons. It's the media center of the country. It boasts powerful politicians who have done little to make things easy for the candidates. And New York voters are hardly shy about getting into disputes over foreign affairs or domestic issues.
Another important reason New York has been a tough state for the contenders is the popularity of Mario Cuomo.
Many New Yorkers have hoped their governor would run for the presidency. When, over a year ago, Governor Cuomo declared he would not run for the nomination, supporters stubbornly refused to believe him, thinking he would change his mind. Up until last week, there was still talk among local party leaders of going to the national convention uncommitted and supporting Cuomo as a favorite son.
At last Thursday's meeting of state Democratic committee leaders, however, the Democrats were encouraged to decide on endorsements, and have since begun to line up behind candidates, with Governor Dukakis winning some key support.
Even so, New York's top two Democrats - Cuomo and New York City Mayor Edward Koch - are withholding endorsements.
Cuomo says he will wait to endorse a candidate until after primary season, and Mayor Koch says he will not endorse a candidate because he still supports Cuomo. But this has not meant the mayor refrains from joining the fray. After a lunch with Senator Gore, Koch said he felt closest to Gore's views. And the mayor has come out strong against the Rev. Mr. Jackson for his stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, saying Jews and Israel supporters would be ``crazy'' to support him.
Indeed, the Middle East is a big issue in New York, where Jewish voters are usually a large, active bloc in primary elections. Gore has been courting the pro-Israel vote in his speeches and appearances. Likewise, in an effort to explain his support for Palestinian rights, Jackson has explained in nearly every speech that his commitment is ``to end any vestiges of racism, anti-Semitism, or sexism.
Lee Miringoff, who conducts poll research at the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says his most recent survey, taken after the Wisconsin primary, shows 47 percent of likely Democratic voters supporting Dukakis, compared to 31 percent for Jackson, and 6 percent for Gore.
Dukakis, who, according to the poll, continues to consolidate his lead in New York, sounds his theme of executive experience in governing Massachusetts and swipes at claims that he has little charisma: ``We've had seven years of charisma, maybe now it's time for competence.''
But Dr. Miringoff says the potential for change still exists with a relatively large number of voters who are undecided or tenuously committed to their choice. Jackson's chances improve when measuring the intensity of support, he says. A low voter turnout could be an advantage for Jackson.
Around the state, the candidates' supporters report election interest is growing. Rockwell Chin of Asian Americans for Jesse Jackson will be on hand this week when Jackson visits Chinatown, citing the candidate's stand on immigration issues, bilingual education, fair trade, and civil and human rights. He says both Korean and Chinese businessmen in New York City will be holding separate fund raisers for Jackson, with expected donation of about $100,000.
``Many Korean businesses do operate in black communities, and feel it is important to reach out,'' says Mr. Chin, an attorney. ``Small businesses [also] feel ignored, and they see a candidate reaching out to their concerns.''
In Brooklyn, Judith Siegal is running as a Gore delegate in the primary. She has been campaigning for Gore, and last week visited nursing homes with the candidate's father, Albert Gore Sr. Ms. Siegal, who has a bookkeeping business, says she likes the younger Gore because he is for a strong national defense while being a ``good liberal'' on social issues.
Sandra Delson of Beechhurst, Queens, is a Dukakis supporter.
``When it appeared that my own Gov. Mario Cuomo wasn't running, I chose Dukakis,'' says Ms. Delson, a community activist and educator. ``I started speaking for him in early January in Democratic clubs in Queens. When I began I was very tentative - I hadn't met him, and had only read about him and seen him on television programs. After Super Tuesday, people asked me, how did you know? You don't, but this one looks like a winner!''
``I met him at a breakfast for the first time, and he did not disappoint me,'' she says.