VOTERS eager to put more women in the United States Senate can take heart that not just one but two of the nation's most prominent women Democrats want their party's Senate nomination in New York. Both former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman hope to challenge two-term Republican incumbent Sen. Alphonse D'Amato.
The wide-open, four-way Democratic race also includes New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams and the Rev. Al Sharpton. The campaign is expected to be one of the liveliest, noisiest, and most expensive ever held in this state.
Most independent polls show Mrs. Ferraro, a former congresswoman from Queens, and Mr. Abrams, who has held public office in the state for 26 years, in the lead. The latest Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll, taken three months ago, showed both candidates getting about 27 percent of the vote. "It was really a dead heat," comments Lee Miringoff, director of the institute.
One key concern is that the Democrats may expend so much energy and money fighting each other for a primary win in September that they may need to raise funds anew and mend deep party rifts before the November election. Those needs would give a certain edge to Senator D'Amato, a feisty Long Island campaigner and skilled fund raiser who has already pulled in more than $1.1 million for the race just this year.
Yet the strong spread of credible Democratic candidates suggests a perceived D'Amato vulnerability. After a two-year probe of charges that D'Amato traded favors for campaign contributions, the Senate Ethics Committee last August found no evidence that he violated Senate rules or federal laws. Yet the committee criticized him for letting his brother Armand use his Senate office for personal business. Armand was indicted in March by a federal grand jury on charges of taking $120,500 in concealed payments f rom a Long Island defense business in exchange for lobbying his brother for federal contracts for the firm.
D'Amato, who insists his brother will be cleared, has a strong record of constituent service. Yet that strength could prove a weakness by reminding voters of the allegations raised against him, particularly when the public is not enthusiastic about incumbents, observes Dr. Miringoff. "The same things that are pluses remind people of the concerns they have about him," he says.
One possibility on the Democratic side is that the two women candidates could split a potential basis of support in a way that helps neither of them, notes Laurie Rhodebeck, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Ferraro has the backing of Emily's List, the Washington lobbying group that raises money for Democratic women candidates. Though her husband, a real estate developer, pleaded guilty in 1985 to a charge of fraudulently obtaining bank financing and her son was convicted three years later of selling cocaine to an undercover agent, most political analysts say her energetic campaigning is helping to overshadow such negatives. "She's been putting a new chapter on her political resume," says Miringoff.
The comparatively reserved Ms. Holtzman, a former congresswoman and Brooklyn district attorney who lost in a previous Senate bid against D'Amato in 1980, has what her supporters insist is a "squeaky clean" image. She vows to take the issue of corruption right to D'Amato's "door." However, Holtzman is not seen as having broad support among state Democratic leaders, a factor viewed as increasingly important in primaries.
"In my judgment Bobby Abrams is the guy to beat," says Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He says that Abrams has been building a strong network of party support for such a run for most of the last 10 years. "He has the broadest base across the state of any candidate," says Professor Benjamin.
Mr. Sharpton, best known as an ally of victims of alleged racial violence, ranks low in most polls but says the primary race will be the stronger for the issues he raises.