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The start of Geraldine Ferraro's campaign for the Senate was as low key as possible.

"Go to 218 Lafayette St. in SoHo (in Manhattan)," said an aide giving a visitor directions to the Ferraro headquarters last February.

It was a full month after she announced she would try again for the Senate.

"Look for the awning with '218' on it. Just to the left is a doorway. Press the top button and wait for the buzzer. Then walk up."

"P. Zaccaro" said a card next to the black button on the post of this nondescript doorway. It is the name of husband John Zaccaro's real estate business in which she has a large proprietary interest. Not even a Ferraro bumper sticker was in evidence.

Her campaign soon moved from the loft to posh quarters on Park Avenue. Many think her quest is still pretty muted. One reason is her difficulty raising money because she started so late.

Resistance to her fund-raising efforts stiffened this summer as her strong lead in the polls over three-term Republican incumbent Alfonse M. D'Amato evaporated.

But she has a strategy.

"She's behaving like the 'front runner,' " said Lee Miringoff, head of the Marist poll. "She's hoping to hang on and avoid a repetition of 1992, when she acted like a challenger and lost a three-way Senate primary."

Ms. Ferraro, according to Democratic Party sources, is running about 10 percentage points ahead of Brooklyn Rep. Charles Schumer and Mark Green, who holds the elected office of New York City public advocate.

Even though Schumer has $7.2 million ready to spend
on television ads -- seven times the money available to Ms. Ferraro or Green -- 10 points is a lot of distance to make up between now and primary day, Sept. 15.

As the nation's first female vice presidential candidate for a major party in 1984, Ms. Ferraro starts out as the best known of the three. But another reality is that she has not won an election since she was returned to her Queens County congressional seat in 1982.

Pollster Miringoff thinks any of the three can win. Ms. Ferraro has the recognition, Schumer's got the money, and Green polled well in his elections in 1993, particularly last year when he received 73 percent of the vote, Miringoff said.

That made Green the top vote getter in the city's municipal elections.

Ms. Ferraro's strategy landed her in a high-profile scrap with TV commentator Marcia Kramer, during an interview on Thursday's telecast on WCBS in New York City. Ms. Kramer kept pressing Ms. Ferraro about why she is declining debate invitations.

Finally, the candidate turned on her interviewer and asked if she isn't "doing a disservice to your viewers" by focusing on debates.

Flustered and angry, Ms. Ferraro off camera called Ms. Kramer "unprofessional" and implied she was a stooge for Green, who wanted to debate her right there.

The ugly confrontation provided an unusual bit of controversy to a primary campaign marked by its blandness.

The candidates are under strict orders from state Democratic Chairwoman Judith Hope to avoid the fratricide that Democrats think handed three-term Republican D'Amato his victories in 1986 and 1992.

All are adhering to the party's demands that they concentrate on criticizing D'Amato's votes on the environment, Social Security, Medicare and education.

In general, it's the kind of campaign a civics teacher would dream of: No name-calling, no accusations, just position papers on handgun control, cutting the defense budget and consumer issues.

All three candidates are of the party's liberal wing, strongly pro-union, pro-government, and advocates of affirmative action and abortion and homosexual rights.

But a campaign bound by Marquis of Queensbury rules ultimately may turn out to be the wrong approach in a year when Democrats may need extra stimulation to get them to the polling place.

A lot of Democrats already were planning to ignore the primary even before President Clinton's controversial speech about Monica S. Lewinsky, said Del Ali, who operates the Mason-Dixon poll.

"The first reason is the economy -- we're not in a recession," Ali said. "Second, a lot of voters are accepting the job D'Amato is doing. He always does the right things as he gets near a general election.

"None of them seems to be the 800-pound gorilla poised to take on Al D'Amato," Ali said.

Last winter, Ms. Ferraro said in an interview she couldn't see feminists getting upset at Clinton's reported conduct because, from what she knew about the affair, it was "consensual."

Ms. Ferraro and Schumer declined to respond when asked their view of the president's speech in which he said his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky was "not appropriate" and "wrong."

Green said he is "disappointed at his lies and his misconduct and still admiring of his five years in office."

Ferraro and Green both said they will promptly endorse the primary winner, if they lose, so as to present a united front against D'Amato.

Schumer, who also may be the Liberal Party nominee, declined to respond to written questions about whether he would withdraw from the campaign if he lost.

Aside from the strong women's vote Ms. Ferraro is expected to attract, Schumer seems positioned to garner strong support upstate, particularly on the Niagara Frontier.

Schumer has spent millions on radio and television ads since June, and will spend even more as primary day nears. And his early start won him endorsements from Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda; County Executive Gorski; the Erie County Democratic Committee; and a number of unions.

Ms. Ferraro has been endorsed by Buffalo's Mayor Masiello.

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