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State Comptroller H. Carl McCall has thrown his hat into the governor's race a bit early, he says, because he needs to raise a significant amount of cash.

Although fund-raising is a legitimate enough reason in this era of expensive and protracted campaigns, McCall has to be cautious in the manner in which he continues to handle the office he's been charged to run. He has to draw a clear line between McCall the comptroller and McCall the candidate.

The office of the comptroller traditionally serves as an independent fiscal watchdog. That tradition has included a high degree of professionalism, and nonpartisan review of financial matters.

McCall's candidacy, declared 21 months before the election, threatens that tradition. While he may very well be able to maintain objectivity in his duties, his candidacy means he must officially review the fiscal performance of the man he hopes to defeat.

It's imperative that the comptroller avoid partisan rhetoric when evaluating the governor's budget proposals, both this year and next. Unfortunately, there's now going to be a perception that any criticism coming out of the state comptroller's office is politically motivated.

McCall recently criticized the governor's proposed state budget, particularly his spending plan for New York State's schools. And while this criticism may be no different than any McCall has lodged against some of the governor's past proposals, it resonates politically now more than ever.

To counter such perceptions, McCall could consider setting up a fire wall between himself and the office, perhaps by appointing an intermediary on sensitive issues that deal more with budget policy than budget performance. Or he may simply find ways to more clearly separate his official duties from his political proclamations, in both tone and style.

The comptroller's office is staffed by about 2,000 people, civil servants and a small number of appointees who work in policy positions. Most of those who run the accounting, payroll and retirement systems are career employees who work in the office no matter who's in charge. They are the ones who get the bills paid, keep the books going, get the checks out to retirees.

Audit reports, however, are completed by policy staff and include commentary on what are perceived as positive and negative steps. Comptrollers routinely do not see such reports until they have been completed, but McCall's candidacy mandates extreme care in handling criticisms and keeping them professional instead of political.

The comptroller is a strong candidate, with considerable early backing for both the Democratic primary election and his possible eventual run for governor. He deserves a chance to develop his political platform and present his own plans for New York, but he must also ensure that the important job he already has been given is done properly and well.

How he balances the competing demands he faces as candidate and comptroller will give New Yorkers yet another measure of the man, and at present that offers as much opportunity as it does conflict. McCall's candidacy shouldn't founder on mere perceptions, when issues are so important. The challenge is his to meet.

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