The presidential aspirations of Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. are largely in the hands of New York voters. Some appear to be responding in the 11th hour - although Mr. Gore remains far behind his rivals. Gore's campaigning in the final days before tomorrow's Democratic primary here has scooped up undecided voters who are making their decisions in the closing hours.
Yet Gore's success here will really depend on how many current supporters of Michael Dukakis he can woo away before Tuesday's voting.
If the senator can steal away enough Dukakis votes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson may finish close enough to the Massachusetts governor to make Mr. Dukakis appear weakened, threatening his precarious front-runner status.
This would significantly benefit Gore, who desperately needs to demonstrate that the Democratic nomination is still a three-man race.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll published yesterday, Dukakis was supported by 43 percent, the Rev. Mr. Jackson by 37 percent, and Gore by 13 percent. Gore's figure, though still low, is more than double his standing in most recent polls.
A New York Daily News poll released yesterday also showed Gore making marked gains in recent days, though only to 10 percent.
``Within the last 48 hours ... the undecided voters are breaking ... decisively in our direction,'' Gore said after Saturday night's League of Women Voters debate in Rochester, N.Y. He indicated that the campaign's own tracking polls show the same movement.
Gore pulled off similar turnarounds in some Super Tuesday contests and in the more recent Wisconsin primary, where he went from about 4 percent to 18 percent in the last week.
But while these last-minute electoral resurrections have been impressive, they have not given Gore momentum going into subsequent state contests. He starts virtually from scratch in each state, arriving as a relatively unknown candidate registering in the low single digits in opinion polls. Gore has yet to show that he can attract a significant number of voters in any Northern industrial state.
The senator continues to maintain that he will stay in the race all the way to the Democratic convention in July, no matter what the outcome is New York. But Democratic activists say that, if Gore doesn't do well here, he will be encouraged to pull out gracefully.
``There will be a tremendous amount of pressure [on Gore] from all over the party ... not to drag this race out longer than it has to be,'' says Al Jackson, political director of the Committee for an Effective Congress. Like most observers, Mr. Jackson believes that Gore has to do well here. ``If he comes in third out of three, that's not well,'' Jackson adds.
``They didn't come to place or show, they came to win,'' says state Democratic Party chairman Lawrence Kirwan. ``The question [for Gore] is how many delegates does he get [and] where does he get them. If he's able to demonstrate a capacity to win in a number of areas ... then he is obviously very much in the race,'' Mr. Kirwan continues. ``But, if there isn't the ability to win in a number of diverse congressional districts ... it clearly is a failure of the campaign.''
Gore was buoyed by the latest poll results because some surveys were made before the endorsement of New York City Mayor Edward Koch last Thursday. The magic number set for Gore is 20 percent of tomorrow's vote.
If Jesse Jackson can draw close to 40 percent here - which would require a low white turnout or significant white support for his candidacy - Dukakis will lead Jackson by only a few points.
Gore has been campaigning aggressively here, attacking the records of the other candidates in a series of debates and press conferences. By Saturday night's League of Women Voters debate, however, the atmosphere had calmed. The strongest rhetoric was reserved for the Reagan administration.
But the Tennessee senator's struggle for the Democratic nomination may depend less on ``contrast'' politics and more on his ability to appeal to a broad array of ethnic and religious groups here. Local political writers can't seem to decide which voting block is more important, Jews, Catholics, blue-collar workers, or ``upstate'' voters. Tomorrow's results will say a great deal about Gore's campaign strategy, and his basic appeal to Northern voters.