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His fledgling campaign lagging far behind in the polls, Peter Vallone, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Monday gave a spirited defense of President Clinton and lashed out at the Republican "assaults" against him.

In a speech before state Democratic Party leaders here, Vallone tried to link Gov. Pataki and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato with national Republican efforts to "smear" Clinton. Vallone, who in a primary debate several weeks ago gave a muted criticism of Clinton's behavior, said the politics of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr have trickled down to the negative campaign television ads now being run by state Republicans against him and other Democratic candidates.

"This nation cannot take another minute of Republicans' obsession with the president's private life, when they should be obsessed with providing health care, creating jobs and educating our children. Pataki and D'Amato are the Gingrich and Starr of New York. It is time that we stood up to their divisive politics that do all harm and no good," Vallone said.

His comments came a few days after a poll showed that most New Yorkers support the president in the ongoing Monica Lewinsky controversy and that nearly 70 percent want him to remain in office.

Meanwhile, a statewide poll released today showed Pataki with a 2-1 lead over Vallone, the second such finding in four days. The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll found 52 percent of likely voters prefer the Republican governor, while 26 percent favor the New York City Council speaker. A poll from the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute made public Saturday had Pataki at 53 percent and Vallone at 26 percent.

The Democratic gathering featuring Vallone and the party's U.S. Senate nominee, Rep. Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, sought to show off a united party organization -- something the state Democratic Party has not enjoyed much of since losing the statehouse in 1994.

The Democrats saved much of their enthusiasm for Schumer, who was shown running strong against the three-term incumbent D'Amato in a new poll out Monday. The poll by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion showed Schumer with 49 percent of likely voters and D'Amato at 44 percent -- a statistical dead heat given the poll's margin of error.

Schumer, who has sought to use to his advantage Republican ads that portray Democrats as anti-upstate, was on Day 2 of his post-primary upstate tour. He said the ads being run by Republicans to scare upstate voters against Democrats will backfire.

"As I've traveled across the state, I've found a different New York than the one Al D'Amato portrays," he said. "I've found that families in Buffalo have the same fears about crime as families in the Bronx."

Harvey Valentine, a D'Amato spokesman, said the ads merely "point out that Chuck Schumer and the liberal Democrats of New York City have consistently voted for higher taxes, more welfare and weaker crime laws."

In his speech, Vallone insisted Clinton has done more good for New York than Pataki or D'Amato. He criticized state university tuition hikes, late budgets and the state's rising debt load under Pataki.

Vallone said Clinton policies have led to $286 million in Head Start funding for New York children and additional money for college grants for low-income students.

"While Pataki and D'Amato were giving bailouts to health insurance companies, Bill Clinton expanded health coverage to more uninsured children in New York by providing $255 million in 1998 alone," he said.

Vallone said the "Republican assaults on President Clinton" are showing up in what he described as the geographically divisive GOP ad campaigns.

"The Pataki-D'Amato money machine will spend $50 million to smear anyone who challenges them. Think about it. This is as much as Ken Starr has spent smearing the president," he said.

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in the state by about 5 to 3, Vallone's strategy in defending Clinton was a clear attempt to reach his potential base of support. Eighty-eight percent of New York Democrats in a Quinnipiac College poll last week said they wanted Clinton to remain in office.

"I call on Democrats across this state to join me in taking on Pataki, D'Amato, Gingrich and Starr," Vallone said.

The Pataki campaign rejected Vallone's criticisms. "It's sad when a candidate like Peter Vallone disintegrates to the low level of their campaigns," Pataki campaign spokesman Michael Marr said. "These types of vicious, unfounded attacks don't merit a response."

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