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U.S. SENATE CAMPAIGN IN NEW YORK SHIFTS FOCUS

The upstate economy played a huge role in Charles E. Schumer's first Senate run, but six years later the topic is barely mentioned.

It wasn't until 46 minutes into the 60-minute debate last week when two words that so dominated the U.S. Senate campaign six years ago were uttered: upstate economy.

But the phrase, in the only upstate debate of the campaign, didn't come from the lips of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who used it like a mantra in his 1998 race against then-Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.

Instead, a little-known candidate, an ophthalmologist who was unable to hide her Long Island accent, made the connection.

"I am struck by upstate New York and the problems of upstate New York's economy," said Dr. Marilyn F. O'Grady, the Conservative Party candidate.

This year's Senate race is the most stealthlike statewide contest in recent memory. Most attention is reserved for the tight presidential race, and Schumer is considered a shoo-in for re-election over O'Grady and Republican candidate Howard Mills.

As a result, key issues -- like the problems facing the upstate economy -- are not receiving nearly the attention they did in Schumer's first run for the Senate six years ago.

Schumer insists that he is talking about the upstate economy as much as in 1998 but that with polls showing no real race, he's not getting the attention he did six years ago.

Whether it's the media's fault or a different campaign style, the lack of attention on the upstate economy in this race hasn't escaped the attention of groups worried about the region. They say the bully pulpit of a statewide race keeps pressure on to help a region that just can't shake its economic doldrums.

A grim economic picture

What has happened?

Why has the upstate economy received so little of the limelight in this year's race?

Upstate's economy is still ailing. A recent study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, portrayed a disturbing image of upstate New York, an area with rising poverty coupled with a brain drain of professionals.

The report found that personal income growth was half of the nation's rate during the 1990s and that over half the income growth was due to government-funded payment increases, such as Medicare and Social Security. It noted the flight of highly skilled workers to better-paying areas and a rise in poverty rates.

Once a low-poverty region, upstate's poverty rate -- at 11 percent in 2000 -- nearly matches the national rate. Brookings found the levels of concentrated poverty neighborhoods rising, also bucking the national trend. And while the latest jobless figures show improvement, the rate of job growth in the Buffalo and Rochester areas continues to decline.

It was this same kind of sour economic news that Schumer, then a Brooklyn congressman, jumped on to defeat his Republican opponent in the last race, D'Amato. He was a rarity among statewide Democrats: He actively courted upstate voters, using economy issue as his welcome card. Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated the theme two years later to win with a surprising level of support among upstaters.

When he announced his bid against D'Amato in April 1998, Schumer portrayed the upstate economy as in crisis.

"There is a fire raging in upstate and Western New York," said Schumer, who handily beat D'Amato in Erie County.

He hammered D'Amato relentlessly on the issue and, as a liberal from Brooklyn, more than held his own in upstate regions that aren't so welcoming to Democrats.

Focus on the positives

In this campaign, Schumer is on cruise control. Though running ads and sprinting around the state, Schumer is sticking to what political insiders called "happy talk."

Instead of the barrage against D'Amato over upstate, his mission is to talk in positives. His campaign ads don't rail against the conditions of the upstate economy. Rather, he talks of his work to help farmers and helping to bring low-fare air carriers upstate -- boasts for which his opponents say he takes too much credit.

Of course, the difference this time is that he is an incumbent -- shackling him in ways a challenger does not confront.

"If there's no race, there's no sense creating a race. He has virtually no opponent to attack," said one Democratic strategist, who noted Schumer's "introductory" TV ads are the kinds candidates run in June, not late October.

Schumer is so far ahead in the polls, he also is able to use his campaign account for other things -- like promoting future political causes. Somewhat stingy in the past about helping fellow Democrats, Schumer has donated $2 million to Democratic Senate causes around the country, which could be helpful for future leadership posts if the Democrats take back the Senate at some point.

He has given a quarter of that amount to state Democratic causes -- seen as a down payment in case he runs for governor in 2006, which he won't rule out.

Schumer says he has talked about the problems of the upstate economy -- mixing in his accomplishments -- in speeches, interviews and direct mailings. "There's just less intensity," he said of this year's race.

Friday morning, he said he spoke in Syracuse on the upstate economy. "But very little press showed up. So, I'm still focusing on it," he said.

The blame game

Upstate business interests long for the day when their agenda tops a statewide campaign, even if they know one Democratic senator in the Republican-controlled Senate can't really effect major economic change.

"The truth of the matter is, if the Senate campaign were to focus on these things, it would draw the attention of others to the problem, perhaps those even able to do something directly about it," said Mark Alesse, head of the National Federation of Independent Business in New York. He called the campaign theme change from 1998 to today "a lost opportunity" to spotlight upstate.

Observers say there is no political advantage for Schumer to bring up the sour upstate economy. His campaign is rich -- he has nearly $17 million still in the bank, compared with $100,000 for his Republican opponent, Howard Mills.

Mills says he has talked of upstate's troubles and has offered specific ideas to help. "Chuck Schumer has failed to deliver for upstate," said Mills, an assemblyman from Orange County.

But his campaign, allies say, is hurt by lack of money and lack of attention by the media.

Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, who tapped his party's candidate, said the media are to blame for certain issues -- like the economy -- not being highlighted. "The media (haven't) bought into it," he said of the race. "You guys have pronounced this race dead from Jan. 1."

But Lee Miringoff, polling director at Marist College, said it would take a competitive race and lots of money for advertising to effectively force out an issue like the upstate economy.

"If Mills wanted to, how would he let everybody know it?" he said of Mills' nearly non-existent ad campaign. "It's a practical issue before it even becomes a strategic one."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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