They represent only 15 percent of New York's Democrats, but delegates from 41 rural counties still flexed some powerful political muscles here Saturday by hanging new front-runner status on three statewide hopefuls: James L. Larocca for governor, Mark Green for U.S. senator and Eliot Spitzer for state attorney general.
The straw poll of small-county Democrats, which many compared to the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, touched off a flurry of political spinning as winners flaunted their new-found leading roles and also-rans put on the best face to second- and third-place finishes.
The results provide the winners with momentum toward receiving the Democratic State Convention endorsement in May, but even that could prove moot since primary voters are expected to decide in September who the candidates will be.
While heavyweights like Peter F. Vallone in the gubernatorial race and Geraldine A. Ferraro in the Senate contest promised to stage comebacks at the convention, Saturday's vote seemed to reflect the spadework the winners have undertaken among upstate party organizations -- some for over a year.
"The numbers are substantial -- two to one over the presumed front-runners, and we beat the combined results of the next two candidates," said Larocca, a Long Island resident and former state transportation commissioner. "It begins to define and narrow the field."
Green, the New York City public advocate, took direct aim at the consistent leader in the polls, Ms. Ferraro, the former Queens congresswoman and vice presidential candidate.
"If Geraldine Ferraro can't get more votes than me in an area of the state where she is known best, I really don't see how she can defeat me in September," Green said.
The voting in all contested statewide races, including a unique campaign for lieutenant governor, was decisive.
In the race for governor, Larocca got 57 votes to 27 for Betsy McCaughey Ross, the current lieutenant governor and another early poll leader; 24 for Vallone, the New York City Council speaker; 17 for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes; and three for former Urban Development Corp. Chairman Richard Kahan.
Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, one of Lt. Gov. Ross' top backers, called her 27 votes an "enormous victory."
"Larocca had an operation on the ground here for 18 months," Hoyt said. "Betsy McCaughey Ross announced just 10 days ago, flew in here last night and still got 50 percent of the vote -- and we didn't really work hard at this."
Vallone's supporters also emphasized that the Queens resident did not expect to fare well Saturday and expressed satisfaction with his third-place finish.
"It still shows he has the ability to engender strength outside New York City," spokesman Peter Ragone said.
Vallone could receive a boost with expected backing from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who addressed the Saturday parley. Sources said the senator is expected to weigh in on Vallone's behalf soon, with Moynihan staffers wearing Vallone buttons Saturday.
In the Senate contest, Green outpolled Ms. Ferraro 70 to 51. Rep. Charles E. Schumer of Brooklyn sparked mild outrage by asking his supporters to hold off voting until the May convention in Westchester County. He acknowledged that his support among rural Democrats is thin.
"I have focused on the suburban and urban areas of upstate New York, and while I had planned to get to these counties, this came around a little early," Schumer said. "In the populated areas, I'm way ahead."
In the four-way race for attorney general, Spitzer got 54 votes. State Sen. Catherine Abate of Manhattan claimed a solid second spot with 49. In a clear blow to his efforts, former Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell of the Bronx tallied 19 votes, while former gubernatorial counsel Evan Davis of Manhattan managed only four.
Spitzer left Ithaca with momentum. "It's significant; it demonstrates I have support across the state," he said.
Koppell said he had not expected stellar results. "It's only the beginning; we've got 5 1/2 months to go," he said.
He added that he will not only stay in the race but also has retained Buffalo campaign consultant Joe Slade White to coordinate a statewide media campaign that he said will result in significant primary support.
One other race, the unique independent campaigns of five people for lieutenant governor, resulted in a solid victory for Plattsburgh Mayor Clyde Rabideau. In a campaign emphasizing his upstate roots, he scored 79 votes, compared to 38 for Manhattan attorney Charlie King, six for Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel, one for Buffalo Council Member at Large Barbra A. Kavanaugh and none for New Rochelle Councilwoman Christina Selin.
Ms. Kavanaugh and Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon both emphasized that they were not surprised by the vote count, especially in view of the months-long efforts of Rabideau and King.
"Clyde is a hometown favorite because he's from a rural area," Ms. Kavanaugh said. "I'm just grateful I could formally enter the race."
She said she will continue efforts to gain the second spot, which is normally the choice of the gubernatorial nominee but could be subjected to a primary contest if candidates can qualify for the ballot.
"It begins now," Ms. Kavanaugh said.