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GOP grateful for Spitzer effect Voter backlash is credited with boosting Republicans

When a newly elected governor takes office after winning with an overwhelming majority, he is expected to use that voter good will to help other members of his party win office in the next election.

It didn't quite work out that way in New York this year.

An embattled Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer found himself getting little credit for helping fellow Democrats win in their local races across the state Tuesday. But he was being thanked profusely by Republicans for what they said was voter backlash against Spitzer that helped propel some GOP candidates over Democrats in a number of key contests.

"It's a clear message to this governor to change his ways," Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, Spitzer's chief nemesis, said of Tuesday's showing by Republicans in places such as Erie, Onondaga, Dutchess and other upstate counties.

To be certain, the Democrats won a number of races, including the mayor's race in Niagara Falls, while coming close to taking over the Monroe County Legislature and apparently holding onto control over the Nassau County Legislature, though a key race there has not yet been decided. Moreover, in many contests, local politics and issues, not Albany dysfunction, drove voter decisions.

"I was more than gratified at the results," Spitzer said in an interview, calling the statewide results "an affirmation of the Democratic Party's success in governing."

But in many Democratic victories, Spitzer was either absent from the races or, in the case of Erie County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul and some Democratic candidates on Long Island, they were running away from him and his policies, notably his plan to let illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses.

In some areas, Democrats appeared to do well in spite of Spitzer. Hochul, for instance, did not ask Spitzer to campaign with her, even though the governor appointed her to the post earlier this year. Moreover, after first hedging on the issue, she sharply split from his license policy when, with a couple of weeks left in the campaign, she threatened to have illegal immigrants arrested if they applied for a license.

In Niagara County, Republicans sent mailings in the closing hour of the campaign seeking to link local Democrats to Spitzer's unpopular driver's license plan -- a tactic derided by the head of the county's Democratic Party as bringing "the Willie Horton approach to politics." Yet it helped, as Republicans maintained their control of the Legislature, though Democrat Paul Dyster won the Niagara Falls mayor's post.

In the final days of the Erie County executive race, which was won in a landslide by Republican Christopher C. Collins, Democrat James P. Keane turned to recorded phone calls to voters by former President Bill Clinton, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer and appearances by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo and others. Spitzer's voice was noticeably absent from the calls or the last-minute stumping.

"It tells you his popularity is way down," said State Republican Chairman Joseph N. Mondello, who mocked the governor by calling him the GOP's "partner" in helping Republicans win at the polls Tuesday.

Collins and Leonard R. Lenihan, the Erie County Democratic chairman, both said they do not believe that the license issue filtered down to the county executive race. But, Lenihan noted, Spitzer nonetheless did become a lightening rod for Republicans.

"There's no doubt Eliot became controversial in the last few weeks of the campaign. I have no doubt he'll work his way out of this situation in the near future, but in the last four weeks, he became very controversial -- and we wanted to downplay its potential impact," Lenihan said in explaining why the state's top Democrat played no visible role in Erie County in the last few weeks.

On. Oct. 14, Spitzer did come to town for a speech on the economy. Afterward, reporters had little to ask about his fiscal plan, as everything focused on his license policy. At one point, Keane avoided being photographed with Spitzer.

The timing of the license issue was not good for Democrats, as many Democrats privately and publicly lashed out at Spitzer for announcing such a controversial plan so close to elections.

"The Republicans did turn it to their benefit, no question," Lenihan said.

The Monroe County GOP leader, Stephen J. Minarik III, said the Republicans would have lost control of the County Legislature were it not for Spitzer's license policy.

Democratic Party insiders say Spitzer should be concerned about the results in places such as Erie County, which has 120,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans and yet still overwhelmingly backed a GOP candidate for county executive.

In Nassau County, Republicans nearly took control of the Legislature, despite rising Democratic enrollment. That could pose trouble for Spitzer's plan to have the Democrats take over the State Senate next year.

"The Democrats," warned Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant, "should not declare victory in 2008."

The governor said he did not do a disappearing act in the days leading up to the elections. The message he said he took from voters? "We approve of what the Democratic Party is doing," he said.

The governor acknowledged that his driver's license plan became an issue in many races. "But the public rejected an effort to use that issue to divide and to defeat good candidates," he said. "Our successes across the state demonstrated that the overheated rhetoric and imagery did not work for the Republican Party."

Spitzer's popularity was falling before the license plan created an uproar. The campaign by his top aides to use the State Police to help embarrass Bruno has hurt him, as did the gridlock that returned to Albany during the legislative session.

As for Tuesday's results, Spitzer said, "We could not be happier at the outcome that I believe was a public rejection of a Republican effort to inflame and incite, and a public statement that we want people to govern on issues that matter to us day to day."


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