Ruth Messinger is doing the politicians' weave, trying to shake hands with as many Brooklynites as she can find during a midday jaunt. Among the hands she pumps is Stephen Levy, on his way to his law office.
"I think she's the second best candidate," says Mr. Levy, who is a Democrat. "But, I intend to vote for Rudy - he's entitled to a second term."
Now that Ms. Messinger has become the Democrats' official candidate to take on Rudolph Giuliani, New York's Republican mayor, she faces a remarkable challenge: With only six weeks before the election, she has to persuade members of her own party to vote for her.
The challenge illustrates how, in the nation's biggest city and elsewhere, voters are increasingly looking at results, not party affiliation. For the past four years, Mr. Giuliani has reduced the crime rate in the city and benefited from the boom on Wall Street. Now, even in a city that is heavily democratic, he is the front-runner.
This is true nationally, too. Polls show incumbents are faring better. "Voters are not nearly as grumpy as four years ago," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Partially, this is because of the strong economy. However, he says it's also because incumbents have learned how to appeal to the 60 percent of the public who are doing well. "They are getting high approval ratings regardless of affiliation and maximizing reelection chances," he says.
Messinger's campaign has yet to catch on. In a recent poll of Democrats, she trailed Giuliani by seven percentage points. Members of her own party give the mayor a 61 percent approval rating.
Meanwhile, Giuliani is an aggressive and popular politician. He plays catch with Little Leaguers. He cracks jokes at press conferences and even put on a dress for a skit at a charity benefit. The mayor, who never seems to relax, trumpets his workaholic nature. A typical Giuliani day begins with a radio show at 7 a.m. and ends with late-night meeting in an outer borough.
Many also remember his endorsement four years ago of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, in his reelection bid. "That solved a lot of his problems in one press release, and all it cost him is an invitation to the GOP convention," says Miringoff.
Giuliani is also not afraid of playing political hardball - a trait New Yorkers appreciate. Earlier this year, he excluded Messinger from marching in a parade, claiming she had not been invited. "He's vicious," says former Democratic mayor Ed Koch, who plans to vote for Giuliani.
MESSINGER who has served in the City Council and as Manhattan Borough president, is well known on the city's liberal Upper West Side for her strong constituent support. Yesterday she got a mild endorsement from President Clinton, who was in town for a speech.
However, she has made political stands that may haunt her. "She's a lefty," says Mr. Koch who once fought with her over a budget surplus. "She wanted to spend it, and I needed it to help balance the next year's budget or we'd go into bankruptcy."
Messinger is trying to walk a fine line on the Rev. Al Sharpton, her adversary for the nomination. Giuliani tried to get her to disavow Mr. Sharpton if the black minister won the nomination. She refused, saying it would racially polarize the city. (Sharpton has asked a state court to require a runoff election, citing voting irregularities.)
Messinger plans to focus her attack on education. Since Giuliani took office, he has whacked $1.3 billion from the school budget, while 80,000 students have entered the system. But in the past year, Giuliani has added money to the education budget to bring arts to the schools and other special projects. Thus he has taken away some of Messinger's grounds for criticism. She will have little opportunity to make up lost ground as there will be just two debates, both in October, in which she can try to win back her fellow Democrats.