LAURENCE ROCKEFELLER'S sudden decision last week to challenge New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in the mid-September GOP primary underscores anew the view that in 1992 every incumbent is considered vulnerable.
Mr. Rockefeller, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and one-time VISTA volunteer who lived for three years in Harlem, is a candidate with a well-known name but no political experience. He must collect 10,000 signatures to get his name on the ballot.
He says the GOP has moved too far to the right. He wants a return to the kind of party championed by Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and, in New York, the late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (the candidate's uncle) and the late Sen. Jacob Javits. Mr. Rockefeller argues that Mr. D'Amato, who seeks a third term, has "sold his influence to the special interests that pay for his campaigns" and appears to take pride in having avoided indictment.
The new GOP contender, who takes a pro-choice stand on abortion, vows to spend no more than $250,000 of his own money on the race and to stay within the roughly $2 million limit prescribed in Congress's recently vetoed campaign finance bill. He says he will avoid 30 to 60-second TV ads which he terms an affront to intelligent voters.
D'Amato, who has amassed some $8 million in contributions since his last election, describes his new opponent as a wealthy liberal who is really a Democrat. D'Amato, often dubbed "Senator Pothole" for his ability to return tax dollars to New York, is a tough political fighter. Yet recently he has come under an almost constant cloud of allegations. Charges may not affect reputation
The charges range from links with organized crime to trading favors for campaign contributions. The latest chapter, a trial in Puerto Rico involving D'Amato's chief fund-raiser there, ended in a mistrial.
Just how much such charges hurt D'Amato, however, is debatable. "He seems to have an uncanny ability to shake off things that would be the undoing of other politicians," says Laurie Rhodebeck, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Yet Demetrios Caraley, a political scientist at Barnard College, insists that the formality of a conviction is not crucial in the court of public opinion. "The perception is that D'Amato is a sleazy guy and that he's going to be vulnerable to a strong Democratic candidate," says Dr. Caraley.
The Long Island incumbent had been gearing up for a difficult race in November against several prominent Democratic challengers.
A WABC-Radio poll here, taken in late June before Mr. Rockefeller decided to run, indicated that New York Attorney General Bob Abrams, former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman each could beat D'Amato by at least four points. Mr. Abrams had the widest margin of 12 points.
Rockefeller first considered running against D'Amato last spring. His campaign communications director, Carol Florman, says that the US position at the global environmental conference in Rio, the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion, and the riots in Los Angeles influenced his decision to run.
The GOP primary challenge may not prove that serious for D'Amato. "The odds are that Rockefeller won't become visible enough so that D'Amato has to really launch an attack against him.... I'd say Rockefeller's chances are very small," says Richard Born, a political scientist at Vassar College. Rockefeller may be an influence
Yet some political analysts say D'Amato cannot afford to ignore Rockefeller. "In a low turnout, anti-incumbent environment unusual things can happen and already have," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion where polls over the years have shown a drop in D'Amato's popularity, even among Republicans. "Anybody who has a working address in the US Capitol in Washington has to run extra hard this time," insists Dr. Miringoff.
Another political shuffle in New York that underscores the difficulties incumbents face is the decision of Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of Brooklyn to run for reelection from a new Hispanic district in the city.
New York lost three seats in redistricting. Rep. Solarz, who figured prominently in the House check-cashing scandal and was a strong supporter of the Gulf war, would have faced a tough fight against an incumbent in any other urban district. Though one of the three declared Hispanic candidates accuses him of arrogance and carpetbagging, he insists that his experience is a plus and that he needn't be Hispanic to represent the district well. "I agree with him but it's an uphill argument in a new district," notes Barnard's Dr. Caraley.
Factors likely to help Solarz include the $2 million he has accumulated in contributions, his liberal voting record on minority issues, and the likelihood that the Hispanic vote will be split among several candidates.