In an early preview of next year's campaign, Gov. Pataki offered a stumplike speech Wednesday to a group of New Yorkers considered vital to his re-election efforts: women.
Aided by his wife, Libby, and at least one potential candidate to be his running mate, Pataki received a warm reception from a crowd that included some Democrats, but was also filled with administration officials and Republican Party faithful from across the state.
The applause for him here, however, apparently is not indicative of the sentiment among many women voters statewide. While his supporters say women have been helped by his initiatives giving insurance protections to breast cancer patients and beefing up efforts to help women collect child-support payments from their ex-spouses, the efforts appear to have done little to reduce the apparent gender gap in his support.
"He hasn't closed the deal yet with women," said John Zogby, a Utica pollster who does work for a number of newspapers in New York. In the spring of 1995, a Zogby poll found 40 percent of women rated Pataki's job performance favorably; 52 percent gave him a negative rating.
By August of this year, 40 percent still rated him positively, while the governor's negative ratings among women went up slightly to 54 percent.
"All the things he has done, from breast cancer initiatives to being pro-choice, are aimed at not further eroding what could be a troublesome group for him," Zogby said.
Pataki dismissed the polls. "Polls go up and down, and you can't base your policies on what moves polls," the governor said.
Indeed, Pataki's job approval rating among all New York voters has risen to an all-time high of 60 percent, another statewide poll reported Wednesday.
The Quinnipiac College Polling Institute survey also showed the Republican governor easily beating potential Democratic challengers who are eyeing next year's election.
Pataki's previous job-approval high was 56 percent in March's Quinnipiac poll. The institute's July poll had Pataki's job-approval rating at 52 percent. It hovered under 50 percent for much of last year.
Republican women officeholders said there is plenty of time for the governor to hone his message to women. "They don't know him. We're just starting to get the message out," said Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, who was the keynote speaker at Wednesday's conference sponsored by the governor's Division for Women.
Ms. Rath, along with Mary Donohue, a judge in Rensselaer County who also appeared with Pataki, are among the women being talked about as his potential running mates next year.
The governor has already said he is dumping Lt. Gov. McCaughey Ross from the ticket.
Erie County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples, who represented a Western New York regional women's council at the conference, said many of the ideas devised in the last year by the Division for Women have already been enacted by the Pataki administration. "Women will recognize the fact that he's interested in their issues and is interested in them, and that's what we want to hear," she said.
Democrats dismissed Pataki's appeal to women. They cited his cuts in social welfare and education, as well as his run-ins with Republican women, including his lieutenant governor, as evidence "of a long history of exploiting women for personal gain," said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Judith Hope.
"I think Pataki has a long way to go to convince women voters of his sincerity, and, of course, that was the initiative he began Wednesday," Ms. Hope said of his speech.
While his session with the women's group was cozy, relations between the governor and the state's top elected woman, Lt. Gov. McCaughey Ross, continued to worsen.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. McCaughey Ross' office accused the Pataki administration of installing phone equipment in her Manhattan office capable of eavesdropping on conversations.
The State Police, which maintains the phone lines, denied the accusation.
After his speech to the women's group, Pataki called Lt. Gov. McCaughey Ross' accusation "bizarre."
He defended the State Police, and when asked whether any bugging had been done, said, "Of course not."
Kevin Lembo-Frey, Lt. Gov. McCaughey Ross' chief of staff, said that the State Police was being used by Pataki allies "as their personal goon squad" but that there was no evidence that any eavesdropping had yet been done.