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The race to unseat Sen. Alfonse D'Amato appears to have begun almost two years early, with several prominent Democrats announcing potential bids and Republicans concerned about a possible primary threat to the incumbent senator in 1992.

This month, Geraldine Ferraro, a former vice presidential candidate, and State Attorney General Robert Abrams formally joined a long list of potential Democratic challengers. Political figures in both parties also speculate that Rudolph W. Giuliani, former U.S. attorney in New York City, might take on D'Amato in a primary.

"A lot of people see that as a possible campaign for Rudy and a chance for Rudy to extract a little revenge on D'Amato," said John E. Cookfair III, senior consultant to the State Republican Committee.

Giuliani lost a tight race for New York City mayor last fall after winning a primary against millionaire Ronald Lauder, whom D'Amato supported.

"It's a political fact of life that Giuliani thinks D'Amato cost him the election because of the divisiveness of the primary," said Joseph Crangle, former Erie County Democratic Party chairman.

Giuliani could not be reached to comment, but earlier this month he steered clear of questions about a challenge to D'Amato, saying 1992 is "too far down the road."

Political sources said Giuliani could be lured into the race for the same reason that so many Democrats appear interested in it: the Senate Ethics Committee investigation into D'Amato's role in the Department of Housing and Urban Development scandal. Apparently, the negative publicity surrounding D'Amato has jump-started the 1992 campaign.

"It's strange," said William Cunningham, consultant to the State Democratic Committee and a former aide to Gov. Cuomo. "There's a statewide election this year, but all anybody really wants to talk about is what's going to happen in 1992."

Democrats and Republicans alike forecast a tough campaign for D'Amato unless the Senate investigation clears him of charges that he used his influence to win favors at HUD for his political contributors.

Republicans tried to downplay D'Amato's adverse publicity when it first broke last summer, but since then, "the situation hasn't gotten any better," Cookfair said.

As a result, D'Amato's approval ratings have plummeted. A New York Daily News poll recently found 35 percent of state residents had an unfavorable view of the senator, while 23 percent had a favorable view.

Ethan Geto, Abrams' top political adviser for two decades, said it's far too early to tell whether D'Amato's image is irreparably damaged. But other political figures said the controversy surrounding D'Amato could carry right up to election day. Past Senate ethics investigations have lasted up to two years. Such a long controversy could spell problems for D'Amato in 1992.

"He's got to get this behind him," said Victor Farley, Erie County Republican Party chairman.

In 1980, D'Amato -- then a Long Island town supervisor -- challenged incumbent Republican Sen. Jacob Javits in a primary and pulled off an upset victory. Now, observers say the 1992 race could be something of a rerun of the 1990 race -- with D'Amato, like Javits, a vulnerable incumbent, and Giuliani the brash challenger.

Cookfair said Republican leaders would try to prevent that. If Giuliani won a primary against D'Amato, the incumbent senator probably would remain on the ballot on the Conservative Party line, prompting a three-way race.

"Then a Democrat walks away with it," Cookfair said. "I don't think Rudy Giuliani wants that to happen," he said, noting that a 1994 race for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's seat would be a more likely goal for Giuliani.

The Democratic side, meanwhile, seems to have no shortage of candidates. In addition to Abrams and Ms. Ferraro, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Manhattan has expressed an interest in running. Other possible candidates include Mark Green, New York City consumer affairs commissioner, and New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman, who lost earlier races to D'Amato, and Reps. Charles E. Schumer and Stephen J. Solarz, both of Brooklyn, and Rep. Thomas J. Downey of Amityville.

Abrams, Ms. Ferraro and Green appear to be the early-line favorites for the nomination, sources in both parties said. Crangle said a primary for the nomination "would be a real free-for-all."

Abrams has statewide name recognition from his 12 years as attorney general, but Ms. Ferraro is even better-known because of her run for vice president, Crangle said. Sources said both are well-known enough to raise money for the race, an important factor since D'Amato already had raised nearly $2 million as of last June.

Geto, Abrams' political adviser, said he has done some initial polling on a Senate race.

"It's been encouraging," he said. "Our conclusion is that he would make a strong candidate."

In a telephone interview, Ms. Ferraro said she plans to have a poll conducted next January to determine if she should enter the race. "If the poll shows that this is doable -- and that doesn't mean I have to be ahead of everybody -- then I'm going to do it."

She said she didn't think the ethical questions that dogged her vice presidential campaign would hurt her in 1992. Her husband, John Zaccaro, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in a real estate deal in 1985, and her son, John Jr., was convicted of selling a small amount of cocaine in 1988.

"To me, I have the clearest slate going," she said. "There isn't anything anybody doesn't know about me or my family."

Ms. Ferraro criticized D'Amato for being too conservative to represent New York, but she stopped short of commenting on the ethics investigation.

"I don't really revel in peoples' problems," she said. "I know how it is. I had (former U.S. Attorney General) Ed Meese hanging over my head for 22 months, and it was horrendous."

In addition to Abrams and Ms. Ferraro, Green ranks as a top candidate.

"He's run before. He won a statewide primary. I'd say he's a very viable candidate," said Vincent J. Sorrentino, Erie County Democratic Party chairman.

The various House members, meanwhile, don't have statewide name recognition and might not want to risk a safe House seat to run for the Senate, sources said.

D'Amato could not be reached for comment on potential opponents, but at a news conference last week he said Ms. Ferraro would be a "very formidable" candidate.

Cunningham, the Democratic consultant, stressed that none of the candidates should be dismissed out of hand.

"Al D'Amato is a good example," he said. "No one in the Republican Party thought of challenging Javits except for D'Amato. Who would think that a town supervisor from Long Island could do that? Opportunity beckons sometimes."

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