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MCCALL OFF TO FAST, EARLY START

Twenty-one months before New Yorkers make their choice, the campaign to elect the next governor has begun in earnest.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Buffalo this weekend, where State Comptroller H. Carl McCall stumped campaign-style Saturday and Sunday in the opening salvos of the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

At the Roswell Park Cancer Institute gala in Adam's Mark Hotel on Saturday, and from the pulpit of two inner-city churches on Sunday, McCall left no doubt that he's now in a campaign mode.

And because former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo launched his candidacy at a Manhattan "welcome home" party last week, and Republican incumbent George E. Pataki shows every indication he will run for a third term, the comptroller acknowledged his effort begins at an unprecedented early date.

"I've been working at this for almost a year now. That's what happens these days," McCall said here Sunday. "The money people say, 'We aren't ready to commit until you commit.' And since money, unfortunately, has become so important in these endeavors, you've got to show them you're serious."

And so McCall -- United Church of Christ minister, former banker, former state senator, former president of the New York City Board of Education and comptroller since 1993 -- begins his quest for the state's highest office. Unlike previous occasions, there is no hesitation this time. At 65, he believes the time is right.

That's why he gathered hundreds of supporters in Manhattan on Thursday to kick off his effort and blitzed through Buffalo over the weekend at an October-like pace.

"I'm in. I'm in to stay. That's it," he said.

McCall enters the Western New York portion of his campaign with several key advantages. Most observers believe he will garner much of the support of the party hierarchy by the time the 2002 Democratic primary rolls around, as well as strong support from organized labor.

He has more than $3 million in his campaign account and knows that figure will grow substantially from a national network of supporters energized by the prospect of electing New York's first African-American governor. Though Cuomo is nipping at his heels and even leads in some early polls, McCall said he has demonstrated what Cuomo has not -- winning statewide. Twice.

"Across the state, I have some 320 elected officials at every level of government," he said.

In Western New York, that means major Democratic figures such as former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine of Jamestown and Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve of Buffalo. Lundine expects to play an important role in McCall's campaign strategy, and as Mario M. Cuomo's longtime running mate, the irony of his support for McCall over the former governor's son is more than apparent.

"Yes, I know a lot of reporters are writing that," Lundine said. "But my feeling is not that Andrew should never be a statewide candidate. I just don't believe this is the time.

"On the other hand," he added, "I do think it's time for McCall."

Eve, meanwhile, has for many years served as a top McCall supporter. Eve can be counted upon to mobilize blacks and other key Democratic constituencies just like he did for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2000 U.S. Senate election.

The assemblyman pointed out that McCall's presence at the top of the ticket is almost guaranteed to result in more African-Americans registering to vote and then going to the polls.

In addition, McCall believes Clinton's November victory over Republican Rick A. Lazio shows "the Democratic Party is in good shape." He pointed to the recent registration of 1.1 million more new Democrats, and said Clinton's impressive showing upstate last November shows the region is no longer a Republican bastion.

That may encourage him more than any other factor. Though he acknowledges Pataki's popularity, McCall believes the Pataki message may have worn out its welcome upstate.

"Pataki and Lazio came upstate and tried to convince people that everything is fine," he said. "You see what happened."

Pigeon indicates his priority

Locally, just because McCall has started his campaign doesn't mean all of his support has yet jelled. Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, a key upstate party figure, has expressed no preference and is not expected to for some time.

But Pigeon indicated his priority is to place a Western New Yorker on the statewide ticket. And to Pigeon, that means the budding candidacy of Buffalo Comptroller Anthony R. Nanula to succeed McCall as state comptroller.

"That's what I'm bringing up first and foremost to both Carl and Andrew," Pigeon said.

Sources close to Pigeon said he truly is open. They note that Cuomo appeared last fall at a Nanula fund-raiser, but they also noted that Pigeon is slated to meet with McCall in Albany today, when Nanula's comptroller candidacy is bound to arise.

They also note that ethnic balance considerations would make more sense for Nanula to run on a ticket headed by an African-American rather than another Italian-American like Cuomo.

But McCall also has problems in Western New York, even among some blacks who would normally form the backbone of his constituency. Grassroots, an African-American political group headquartered on Buffalo's East Side, has long been at odds with Eve.

Grassroots President Clarence Lott said McCall's relationship with Eve is not a problem with Grassroots, but that many natural McCall supporters need to hear more from the candidate.

"His relationship with the black community is a good one, though he doesn't get around much," Lott said. "I'm not anticipating a problem, but he does need to shore up his base."

McCall cites struggles

The fact that he is black and now in a position to run for governor of New York is not lost upon McCall. In his frequent addresses from the pulpit before black congregations, he often refers to the struggles of African-Americans and their progress since the days of slavery and segregation.

"Today we elect people who look like us to high places," he said Sunday at True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street.

And while he dwelled on "faith, focus and fulfillment" in his interpretation of Psalm 70, McCall the preacher becomes McCall the politician in denouncing President George W. Bush's selection of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general.

"When it got down to things that affect us every day -- things like women's rights or human rights or affirmative action -- he appointed John Ashcroft," he said. "John Ashcroft is aggressively opposed to everything we are for. He stopped a black man from getting appointed to the federal bench just because he is black."

But McCall also believes race will not be a factor in his attempt to make history. He points out he won his last election with the support of 45 of the 62 counties.

"(My candidacy) is an attempt for people to show in New York that they're prepared to vote for somebody on the basis of their qualifications," he said. "Hillary did it. It's the first time we ever elected a woman. I think New York is a place where people put aside color and gender and are prepared to vote on qualifications."

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