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‘Why not?’ as underdog Pataki joins presidential race

EXETER, N.H. – George E. Pataki ambled his towering frame into the center of this quintessential New England town Thursday to announce that he is running for president, prompting many here and around the nation to ask: “Who’s he?”

None of that bothers him. But such a basic question gets asked about even a former three-term governor of New York in the Republican race, where Pataki is overshadowed by major and more current names such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and even Rick Santorum. Indeed, a majority of likely Republican voters for the nation’s first 2016 presidential primary surveyed by Bloomberg/St. Anselm’s College have never even heard of Pataki.

But then again, those who know him best counter with their own two-word question about his candidacy: “Why not?”

With as many as 19 Republicans campaigning or at least flirting with running in 2016, Pataki has surveyed his own political past to recognize that nobody ever gave him a chance before – not when he ran for mayor of Peekskill, not when he beat an incumbent for the Assembly, not when he challenged a Republican icon in a State Senate primary, and not when he knocked off Democratic giant Mario M. Cuomo for governor in 1994.

Absent from politics since 2006 and approaching his 70th birthday next month, the trim and fit-looking guy from Peekskill appears ready to try once again – this time for the biggest prize of all.

On Thursday, before about 100 supporters – including his wife, Libby, and son, Teddy – in a sweltering Old Town Hall in Exeter, Pataki delivered an impassioned defense of who he is, what he stands for and what he would seek to do if elected. In the same room where Abraham Lincoln addressed the citizens of Exeter on March 3, 1860, the former governor laid out familiar themes of less government, lower taxes, combined with newer calls seeking tolerance for immigration, a strong defense and worldwide leadership from the White House.

“Our allies must trust us. Our enemies must fear us. And they will,” he said. “We will defend our freedom, but we will not be the world’s policeman.”

Pataki seemed to save his harshest shots for the woman he assumes he would face in the 2016 general election, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“No one will be above the law, not even if you are a former secretary of state whose name happens to be Clinton,” he said, while targeting her and former President Bill Clinton for their claims of representing the middle class.

“Unless by ‘middle class,’ they mean someone who left the White House ‘dead broke’ and 10 years later had $100 million,” he said to some of his strongest applause of the morning. “Unless by ‘middle class,’ they mean someone who charges a poor country $500,000 for a half-hour speech. She speaks for the middle class?”

Though many of his normal entourage gave him high marks for his address, it was marred in its last sentence when he referred to his speaking venue as “Nashua” instead of Exeter, N.H. The crowd reacted to the gaffe with groans.

Later he told reporters he would compete in other states besides New Hampshire, where he is expected to concentrate his efforts for much of 2015.

“We’re kicking off here in New Hampshire, but I’ve been to Iowa, I think, three times, and South Carolina three times,” he said. “We’ll be around the country. I love New York. We’re not going to ignore you in New York.”

3 terms in a blue state

None of this surprises longtime friends such as Michael C. Finnegan, a former top aide considered the architect of Pataki’s previous political triumphs. And there are plenty of triumphs: Pataki has only lost one election – an Independence Party primary to B. Thomas Golisano in 2002.

“The political landscape is littered with people who doubted George Pataki every time he ran for office,” said Finnegan, a lawyer and Hudson Valley businessman. “They all thought it couldn’t be done, but look at the results.

“Only two Republicans in the latter half of the 20th century became governor,” he added. “One was named Rockefeller and had all the resources of the Rockefeller name. The other had the resources of a mailman’s son.”

That “Why not?” feeling seems to pervade Pataki’s latest venture. As he announced Thursday in the same town that many consider one of the pre-Civil War birthplaces of the Republican Party – the former governor was again citing his long record.

He counts tax cuts, criminal justice reform and a sparkling environmental résumé as the basis for his presidential run, even if many critics say even his Republican rule failed to rein in New York’s high-tax, high-spending tendencies.

But he is also making the case that he won three terms as a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state – adding a political spin to the old argument, “If you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere.”

Former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, is one of those who has always recognized Pataki’s ability to defy the experts, going back to the days when they sat next to each other on the floor of the Assembly. They remain close personal and political allies.

“When you look at his career, he has defied all logic and won,” Reynolds said. “I’ve known many governors and senators who take a look at the presidential field and ask, ‘Why not me?’

“Now he’s underway – he’s engaging,” Reynolds added. “That’s what he has to do if he has any hope of a surprise.”

With his Thursday announcement, Pataki becomes the eighth Republican to officially declare for the presidency. He jumps into what is expected to become an even more crowded field, this time buoyed by the hope that he can distinguish himself in a moderate Republican state similar to New York and its traditional embrace of “Rockefeller Republicanism” that propelled him to success over so many years.

Pro-choice position

That means taking his pro-choice position on the issue of abortion into New Hampshire in an important way that separates him from the rest of the field. It is part of the formula – ethnic, Catholic, suburban, pro-choice – devised by his political mentor, former U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, that Pataki embraced as he evolved from a pro-life assemblyman to pro-choice figure on the national Republican stage.

Political scientist Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, noted that Pataki is barely registering in most polls of Republicans in the Granite State. But he also said that 45 to 50 percent of New Hampshire Republicans identify themselves as moderate or liberal, and that Pataki’s pro-choice views may allow him to stand out among other moderates like Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“If there is a state where a moderate Republican can do well, this is it,” Smith said. “It’s absolutely worth a shot. There is no favorite, it should be a good year for Republicans in 2016, and he asks, ‘Why not me?’ ”

Smith said Pataki brings other advantages to the fray. He was governor of a big state for 12 years, he has stumped through New Hampshire while previously flirting with a candidacy, and he has time to make his case over the next year.

But it remains a tough case to make.

“Even in a crowded field, he is one of the least popular,” Smith said, referring to the polls. “His net favorables are negative, and his biggest hurdle is that he has to convince people to like him. He’s been slowly coming up, but nobody is paying attention yet.”

Another University of New Hampshire political scientist, Dante Scala, expresses no real optimism about Pataki’s chances as others such as Bush and Christie also vie for the moderate vote.

‘Fresh face’ in crowd

“His hope is that he hits the grass roots hard and that he’ll be here nonstop,” Scala said. “He realizes he will be hard-pressed to make a play in places like Iowa, so he’ll be like (Sen. John) McCain in 2000 and focus on here.”

Pataki, like most New York governors before and after him, has always harbored presidential ambitions. He visited Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina while still governor in 2002 and established national political action committees in conjunction with the national elections of 2008 and 2012. But he has never taken the step of gathering supporters in a key state such as New Hampshire to announce his candidacy.

Even to old political foes such as William Cunningham, former executive director of the Democratic State Committee and top aide to Cuomo, the Pataki candidacy is something to take seriously.

“He has as much right to do it as anyone, probably more,” he said. “He ran a big state. And, by the way, who took Jimmy Carter seriously? He was a one-term governor of Georgia who upset the apple cart.

“And, believe it or not, George Pataki is a fresh face in a crowded field. They’ve been talking about Marco Rubio and those guys for the past year.”

Cunningham also thinks Pataki could be angling for the ticket’s second spot, bringing regional and ethnic balance given the probability that one of the better known candidates will snare the nomination.

“At least if he runs he can’t forever second-guess himself,” Cunningham said. “And if he winds up on the ticket, that’s even better.”

Finnegan, possibly Pataki’s closest confidant during his early career, calls his old boss one of the best retail politicians in New York history and “dangerously smart.” He said as a friend, he has advised the former governor to “go for it,” if only because he has the right and has something to bring to the conversation.

“He’s the kind of voice the party needs to hear from; an amalgam of conservatism and what others might characterize as common sense,” he said. “And in New Hampshire, he’s tailor-made for someone who can connect with people.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com