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Gov. Pataki's popularity remains strong among New Yorkers, but a new poll conducted for The Buffalo News shows voters more than willing to consider an alternative come 1998.

The statewide poll, which surveyed 819 regular voters Sunday through Tuesday, shows Pataki registering favorably with 46 percent -- practically the same as his high of 48 percent last February. Only 24 percent regard him unfavorably.

That, says Del Ali of the Mason-Dixon poll, is significant.

"The key is that his unfavorables are down," Ali said. "They're not bad numbers. People like him and the majority approve of the job he's doing."

But the pollster noted in the numbers an important warning sign for the governor. While most New Yorkers are extremely unfamiliar with potential Democratic opponents, they are willing to consider them. Only 42 percent would vote to re-elect Pataki if the election were held today, 41 percent would consider another candidate and 17 percent would vote to replace him.

That becomes more significant, Ali said, because voters do not even recognize the names of potential Democratic challengers.

"If an alternative comes along, they're going to listen," Ali said. "He's in much better shape than (former Gov. Mario) Cuomo was, but he could have an interesting race on his hands."

Ali said Pataki's ratings are average or above average when compared to other governors around the nation, scoring highly especially in relation to other big state leaders.

The poll showed 53 percent think Pataki is doing an excellent or good job as governor, while 47 percent rate him as fair or poor.

In addition, 53 percent of New Yorkers think the governor is leading the state in the right direction, while 29 percent disagree and 18 percent are not sure.

While in Buffalo Wednesday to tout his new budget, Pataki downplayed the slew of polls taken in recent weeks showing similar results.

"The polls go up and down. I don't get overly happy when they're very good, and I don't get upset when they're not," he said. "You can't base policy on politics. You have to do what you think is right."

As in past polls, the governor is strongest upstate, where 61 percent rate him excellent or good and 39 percent say his job performance is fair or poor. In the downstate suburbs, he rates 48 percent excellent or good, with 52 percent fair or poor.

He fares worst in New York City, where 46 percent rate him excellent or good, and 54 percent peg his performance as fair or poor.

Though Pataki rolls over any potential Democratic opponents in head-to-head matchups, high undecided rates should make the governor uneasy, Ali said.

"Well over half the state doesn't know any of these people, but they still pull the incumbent down to under 50 percent," Ali said.

That fact has not been lost on potential challengers. Ron Foley, spokesman for James L. Larocca, former transportation commissioner and Democratic hopeful, said Pataki's failure to reach the 50 percent mark shows his "vulnerability."

Of all Democrats, Comptroller H. Carl McCall rates the highest. McCall, who is expected to announce his political plans within the next few weeks, would receive only 30 percent of the vote were the election held today.

Pataki receives 46 percent and 24 percent remain undecided.

New York City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone ranks next with 23 percent, followed by Larocca at 19 percent, Assembly Majority Leader Michael J. Bragman at 14 percent and Richard Kahan, former Urban Development Corporation president, at 13 percent.

Still, the Democratic contenders remain unrecognized by huge numbers of New Yorkers. While McCall is regarded favorably by 28 percent of the voters, 48 percent don't recognize the man they elected state comptroller in 1994.

Vallone is unrecognized by 59 percent, Larocca by 75 percent, Bragman by 81 percent, and Kahan by 89 percent.

Foley, the Larocca spokesman, said such numbers should be expected.

"We've spent all our time so far on the inside baseball stuff, getting support from political leaders," he said. "We haven't gone to the retail voter yet."

The poll's margin for error is a plus or minus 3.5 percent.

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