ISRAEL may be thousands of miles from New York City, but Mayor David Dinkins's six-day trip there this week is likely to have its strongest impact here at home among Big Apple voters.
Mr. Dinkins says his visit, which began Sunday and is partly paid for by Israel, is not political. It was postponed when he was busy dealing with a city budget crunch.
Rudolph Giuliani, his GOP challenger in the fall mayoral election, calls the trip a "transparent" political move.
This is a year when every point scored with any ethnic, racial, or religious group matters. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans here 5 to 1, recent polls show that voters are almost evenly split between Dinkins and Mr. Giuliani.
Dinkins, elected in 1989 as the city's first black mayor, is trying to expand the coalition of black, white liberal, and Hispanic voters that gave him a 2-point edge over Giuliani last time.
Recent polls show that the mayor has lost some support among Hispanics who backed him by a two-thirds margin in 1989. The mayor stresses the number of high-level Latino appointments he has made, and his support for minority-owned businesses and more Latino police recruits.
Former federal prosecutor Giuliani, who made his name nabbing mobsters and white-collar criminals on Wall Street, tried to seize the advantage recently by forging a multiparty alliance with veteran Latino politician Herman Badillo, a Democrat. The former congressman had planned to run for mayor but instead decided to vie for city comptroller.
"It's like the Hispanic political identity is up for grabs," says John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
"Regardless of how many votes are directly picked up, I think Giuliani was trying to send out a message that this was going to be a broader, more inclusive campaign," observes Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Many analysts consider the Hispanic vote the swing one. But the mayor faces a tough challenge keeping Jewish voters, even though he is a friend of Israel and supporter of Jewish concerns. Last time, he got some 35 percent of this vote. Yet his leadership during August 1991 violence between blacks and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn's Crown Heights continues to be sharply criticized. Jewish residents say police did not protect them enough during the unrest.
Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) ordered a state probe into the situation after last fall's acquittal of a black teen charged with killing an Australian Hasidic scholar. The results, which mayoral aides say are not likely to have a positive impact on Dinkins's campaign, are expected this week. A deposition from the mayor is also due soon in a related federal civil rights lawsuit.
"Crown Heights has just turned into a disaster [for the mayor]," says Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Jewish Democrat who supports Giuliani. "More than anything, it's the mayor's refusal to say: `It's my fault, and I'm sorry.' He's losing the liberal Jewish vote. I'm not saying all of it but a fair percentage of it."
Mr. Hikind, who was one of four men allegedly on a hit list of suspected terrorists arrested in June for a bombing plot, originally planned to go to Israel with a delegation during the mayor's trip to make sure that Israelis know that the mayor's relations are strained at home.
Hikind, who says protests will be staged against the mayor in Israel, canceled his trip at the last minute. "I don't personally want to play a role in helping the mayor play the victim, which in my opinion is something he enjoys doing," he says, adding that he believes the mayor's trip at the height of the campaign is political, made to "endear himself to the Jewish community."
Giuliani has condemned the Crown Heights violence, even calling it a pogrom. New York Newsday termed his use of the word "reckless" and "irresponsible." But an aide says he was referring to a lack of leadership.
Demetrios Caraley, a political scientist at Barnard College, says if Giuliani continues "to play the race card" and to capitalize on divisions within the city, he may lose.
"It's really Giuliani's election to lose ... and he will ... if he scares people into thinking he will polarize the city, just as [former Mayor Ed] Koch did."
Though the contest is usually described as a two-man race, Roy Innis, Congress of Racial Equality chairman, may run in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. To get on the ballot, Mr. Innis, who is black and insists his entry will prevent use of "the racial hustle," needs 7,500 voter signatures by July 15. Also in November, George Marlin, a municipal-bond trader, will run for the Conservative and Right to Life parties. He could siphon votes from Giuliani.
"There is no single group that's going to swing this election, if it stays this close," Dr. Miringoff says. "I think the intensity of support that each candidate has ... and [his] ability to register voters and turn them out" may prove the most important factor.