IN New York's close United States Senate race, there is no contest over which candidate is taking the moral high ground. Neither gets the prize.
Pundits say the campaign between Republican incumbent Alfonse D'Amato and his Democratic challenger, Robert Abrams, is one of the most negative anywhere in the country.
Of the 15 GOP Senate seats up for reelection, Senator D'Amato's is considered one of the most vulnerable. Mr. Abrams, a strong statewide vote-getter who is in his fourth term as New York's attorney general, had a wide lead last month after defeating former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in the primary. But the latest polls show the two candidates running neck-and-neck.
Tapping a $4 million campaign chest that gives him a 5-to-1 spending advantage over his opponent, D'Amato launched a series of aggressive television ads against Abrams one day after the primary. One criticized Abrams for having accused Ms. Ferraro of mob links, a charge actually first leveled by D'Amato's own campaign in August. Another D'Amato ad shows footage of a primary debate in which Ferraro cites criticism of Abrams by a state body for having accepted campaign contributions from people with busine ss before the attorney general's office.
The Abrams camp had expected ethics charges to be one of their strongest weapons against D'Amato. The senator has been accused of using his office to get special favors, including federal housing contracts, for friends and contributors.
After a two-year probe, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics concluded that D'Amato conducted the business of his office in an "improper and inappropriate manner." His brother Armand, who used the office to help a client get a defense contract, goes on trial in March on mail-fraud charges.
D'Amato, who stresses he has never been indicted, says the charges are politically motivated.
Knowing that the ethics issue was the strongest charge against him, D'Amato, seeking a third term, attacked early. It was an effort to define Abrams' character before Abrams could do so himself in a more positive fashion, says Richard Born, a Vassar College professor of political science. "It's a classic gimmick," he says.
Barred from taking the offensive, Abrams was forced to defend his character and deeds. In the process, he has returned volleys of his own. He says D'Amato is "a man with no moral compass" and should release secret testimony given before the Senate ethics committee.
Several days ago, at a campaign rally where he was heckled by D'Amato supporters, Abrams drew unexpected headlines when he described D'Amato as a "fascist" for allegedly employing "the big lie techniques" used by Nazi propagandists. Abrams later apologized. D'Amato, who says the remark was a slur against all Italian-Americans, has refused to accept the apology and instead made the remark the centerpiece of an advertisement.
"D'Amato wants to make sure attention is focused on Abrams," says Dr. Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion.
Each candidate paints the other as an extremist. D'Amato calls Abrams "hopelessly liberal," while Abrams insists that D'Amato has voted with "the radical right" to defeat civil-rights legislation and ban abortion.
Pointing to Abrams' opposition to the death penalty and support of a federally-insured national health-care plan, D'Amato insists that his own stands on those issues, and others, puts him closer than Abrams to the positions of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton.
Ira Katznelson, a political scientist at the New School for Social Research, says women voters could play a large role in determining the outcome of New York's Senate race. He says that D'Amato's stand against abortion and his attempt to present himself as "a tough and feisty Mr. Ordinary Guy" in the Senate have generally appealed more to male than to female voters. "If D'Amato were running as well with women as with men, he'd be in the lead now," says Mr. Katznelson.