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LEADERS VIE FOR REMADE STAGE
MORALS VOTE FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH

The state that gave the nation Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson A. Rockefeller is now suggesting new names for the national political stage.

But as Hillary Rodham Clinton, George E. Pataki and Rudolph W. Giuliani flirt with national candidacies, the chasm between red and blue states may prove too wide even for these major New York figures.

Following a presidential election that saw the heartland vote and evangelical Christians tipping the balance for George W. Bush, new questions surround the politics of old liberal bastions like New York.

New Yorkers eyeing national office must now recognize that religious fundamentalists and heartland voters are a force to be reckoned with.

According to national pollster John Zogby of Utica, the Eastern establishment no longer anchors the political universe.

"They can't be the kind that poo-poo or make fun of (values-oriented voters) or wonder who these hicks are," Zogby said of future national candidates. "New Yorkers are going to have to understand this."

It's not difficult for the Rev. Dan Hamlin to comprehend. The pastor of New Covenant Tabernacle Assembly of God in the Town of Tonawanda said he believes outrage among many Christians over former President Bill Clinton's conduct in office galvanized a unified force.

"I am pleasantly surprised that those who hold to biblical truths voted considerably more this time than before," he said. "I always wondered where this sleeping giant was on Election Day."

None of it surprises Michael R. Long, the Brooklyn-based chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. His faction was established in 1962, he points out, to counter Rockefeller's liberal tenure as governor and has acted as a major balancing force ever since.

Long said much of the New York political establishment is just now getting it.

"They don't understand how Iowa or North Carolina or Texas works, and they don't recognize a growing trend for a social stand because they never travel in that world," he said. "They've had to be hit over the head, because most politicians are amazed this group is even out there. And that's a sad state of affairs."

Long says the Conservative Party often works to move Pataki "back to the center" and still believes the governor could compete on a national stage. But he also acknowledges that all three of New York's potential national players could face major problems after carving out resumes that may prove moderate in New York but liberal in the heartland.

"All those individuals start off trying to climb over a lot of serious hills they've made for themselves," he said.

Those "serious hills" involve varying degrees of support for abortion, gay rights, stem cell research or gun control. While liberal stands on those issues gain votes, especially in New York City, most experts agree they offer a tough sell on a national scale.

A post-election Zogby poll showed 68 percent of voters thought faith and/or values were important in determining their presidential vote.

But arguments rage over the real meaning of "moral issues."

While abortion and gay marriage might rank as a moral issue for one person, the war in Iraq could occupy that category for another.

As a result, not everybody believes the big names of New York politics are suddenly banished from the national scene. The last New York resident to run for national office, 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro, says Bush prevailed on issues of terrorism and homeland security -- not abortion and gay marriage.

"I suggest that, when you hear that 25 percent of the people believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that it's really the dumb vote -- and he got it," the former Queens congresswoman said. "I can't tell you how crazy that drives me."

Further, Ferraro insists moral values drove many to vote against Bush and a war she said has yet to be justified.

"Who are these people to lecture me? I think it's obscene," she said. "Your morals are better than mine because you supported an unjust war?"

Ferraro says it "tickles" her that moderates like Pataki and Giuliani were trotted onto the Republican National Convention stage "when the right wing could care less." As a result, she says their national ambitions may never be realized.

But she thinks that Sen. Clinton's views could prevail in the Democratic Party and that the senator could win over conservative areas of the nation in the same way she did conservative upstate areas in 2000.

"When people say this is all about morals, I don't think so," Ferraro said. "It's about the future, and that's what Hillary can do when it comes her time."

The same is true for Republicans, says Kieran Mahoney, a GOP consultant with close ties to Pataki. He believes that election results are often over-analyzed and that core issues still revolve around security and the pocketbook.

"The most important issues in the United States of America are the economy and national defense, as always," he said. "And New York Republicans and Democrats are well positioned to speak to those issues."

Pollster Zogby says he has been reading politics long enough to know that anything can change in four years. Who would have foreseen Clinton winning New York in 2000 after hailing from Illinois, Arkansas and Washington, D.C., he asked. And who would see Giuliani as a symbol of divisiveness on Sept. 10, 2001, only to become "America's mayor" following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?

"It's complicated, yet at the same time easy to understand," he said. "It's all about 'What have you done for me lately?' and 'What will you do for me next?' "

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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