WITH just one week to go before New York's primary elections, the once-lackluster Democratic Senate race here has suddenly come to life.
Much of the new vitality centers on charges that front-runner Geraldine Ferraro has ties to organized crime.
The allegations, partly a repeat of lingering questions from her 1984 vice-presidential candidacy, stem from investigatory articles that appeared in the Village Voice and New York Newsday in late August. Ms. Ferraro's leading challengers - state attorney general Robert Abrams and New York City comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman - quickly picked up the cue, demanding answers.
Ferraro contends the allegations are unsubstantiated ethnic slurs. Ms. Holtzman and Mr. Abrams say their questions are legitimate. The two have zeroed in particularly on why a child-pornography distributor with mob ties was allowed to remain a tenant for three years in a building partly owned by Ferraro's husband, John Zaccaro, after Ferraro promised that the tenant would be evicted. Her challengers also criticize her refusal to disclose her 1985 and 1986 tax returns.
In her defense, Ferraro hired a respected former federal judge to review her financial affairs. He reports finding no evidence of mob connections.
TV campaign ads have been the means for much of the dialogue. Viewers have watched Holtzman, a former Brooklyn district attorney, urge her rival, a former Queens district attorney, to "come clean." In a swift response, a Ferraro ad displays a picture of Anita Hill, who challenged Clarence Thomas's suitability for the US Supreme Court. The ad suggests that both Ferraro and Ms. Hill have been victims of smear campaigns.
"Ferraro's response came before most people even knew the attacks had occurred," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The key question is how such negative campaigning will affect the vote. A New York Daily News poll in late July gave Ferraro a 14-point lead over Abrams, who not long ago stood even with Ferraro, and a 32-point lead over Holtzman. Scoring lowest was the fourth candidate, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist.
"I'm not sure how much voters are listening to any of this (the charges against Ferraro)," says John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "It might have some effect on the margin, in whittling the front-runner down, but it will probably have more of an effect in ... turning people off to the elections."
Joseph Zimmerman, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany, says he thinks the charges against Ferraro would be likely to influence more voters in the general election than in the primary, where voters tend to be more partisan and sophisticated in checking the truth of such allegations.
Democratic primary voters tend to be liberal. Both Holtzman and Abrams may spend much of the remaining week underscoring Ferraro's relatively conservative stands. Abrams and Holtzman oppose the death penalty and favor a comprehensive, government-administered, national health-care plan. Ferraro supports the death penalty and employer-financed health insurance.
The winner of the primary will face two-term US Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in November. A scrappy fighter from Long Island who stresses constituent service, he is widely considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable Republicans. A Senate Ethics Committee probe into charges that he traded favors for campaign contributions turned up no evidence of rule-breaking, but he was chastised for allowing his brother to use his office and stationery to help a defense contractor. With a campaign chest of almost $4 million , Senator D'Amato has more funds than all four Democrats combined.
Still, the November election is unlikely to be a straight two-way contest. The Liberal Party, which has endorsed Abrams, will be on the ballot.
When former US Sen. Jacob Javits (R) of New York ran in that slot after losing the GOP Senate primary to D'Amato in 1980, he siphoned off liberal votes from Democratic nominee Holtzman, who lost the election to D'Amato by 1 percent of the vote. But few political analysts expect Abrams, a public official in New York for 27 years, to wage an active campaign as the Liberal candidate if he loses the primary.