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MONEY IS KEY TO STATEWIDE POLITICAL RACES

This may be the first political column you've read all week that's not about sex. So we'll talk money instead. And when it comes to the political process, money may be as powerful a primal force.

Here a few things you should know about money and the 1998 campaign:

Watch for New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone to this week begin spending some of the $3.7 million he's raised on statewide television ads. Vallone, who is building momentum in his drive to become the Democratic nominee against Gov. Pataki, will label the incumbent a "borrow and spend" governor in an attempt to make the state's debt situation a major campaign theme.

The lack of money in the campaign coffers of other Democratic contenders like Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes and former transportation commissioner Jim Larocca means the two probably will not join the advertising "air war." Though they promise strong grass-roots efforts, their lack of TV time is not expected to help their struggling campaigns.

Meanwhile, Betsy McCaughey Ross was supposed to rank as a major advertising force as a result of the almost $4 million contributed mostly by her husband. But campaign watchers are wondering why that money has not fueled the stream of ads that were supposed to vault her into the nomination. Now, it appears that early advantage may have been lost as she goes head-to-head with Vallone in the campaign's final weeks.

And then there's Tom Golisano. He kicked off his Independence Party candidacy last week with the promise of spending at least $10 million on the effort -- all his own money.

Attorney general hopeful Oliver Koppell was spending some of his campaign money in Buffalo last week, filming his television commercials under the direction of media consultant Joe Slade White.

Lack of money seems to generate all kinds of proposals for campaign-finance reform, with Evan Davis leading that charge in the Democratic attorney general's race. Davis has virtually no funds compared to rivals like Eliot Spitzer, but that results from practicing what he preaches. He has set strict contribution limits and will not accept money from a host of special interests. Larocca, who also registers virtually no campaign funds, is also advancing a plan for campaign-finance reform.

The topic is also hot with State Sen. Franz Leichter, D-Manhattan, who just issued a report naming Buffalo's Carl Paladino and his penchant for making contributions under at least a dozen companies he heads. That way, Leichter says, Paladino and others evade limits on corporate contributions. The senator wants to outlaw such practices, pointing to its use in several GOP campaigns.

Paladino defends the practice, saying he has given to many a Dem using the same method. He says each of his many companies headquartered in Ellicott Square have different investors, justifying his practice of "bundling."

"He's made the assumption that guys like me form shell corporations," Paladino says. "I'm not hiding anything."

Paladino says some of the ideas for campaign-finance reform have gone too far, and that he sees nothing wrong in the practices Leichter is blasting. "I think it's the American way," he said.

Spitzer, the front-runner in the attorney general contest among Democrats, is following up on his promise to Erie County Democrats. The party's latest financial disclosures show Spitzer dropping $20,000 on Chairman Steve Pigeon's local organization. Spitzer's rivals continue to charge that such contributions amount to purchasing support.

Koppell said in Buffalo this week he has gone to court to seek a more complete financial filing from Spitzer, claiming Spitzer may be violating limits on family contributions.

Not true, Spitzer said in Cheektowaga last week. "It's my money," he said. "Koppell should be talking substance and not attacking fellow Democrats."

Back at Democratic Headquarters, Pigeon's financial filings also reveal that Vice Chairman Chris Walsh, a close Pigeon associate, also receives some hefty checks from the party. The records show that Walsh received a $10,000 reimbursement for nine months of expenses, and Pigeon says the veteran of decades of local politics earns every penny by working full time. "He's an integral part of headquarters," Pigeon said.

One more tidbit from the Democratic financial statement. Republican Supreme Court Justice Ed Rath contributed $500 to Pigeon's Endorsed Democrats Fund -- a sure sign that he's in the hunt for bipartisan backing in his re-election bid this fall.

And on the GOP side, organizers for Sen. Al D'Amato's big fund-raising event in Lockport this weekend -- the one featuring New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- were beaming about the $100,000 raked in at the home of supporter David Ulrich. But local Republican leaders say privately they don't share in the enthusiasm for so many of these statewide races, especially when they get turned away from tapped-out donors for this year's Assembly and next year's county executive efforts.

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