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As both candidate and chief lawman, Spitzer must walk a legal tightrope

As Eliot L. Spitzer wound up a campaign stop at the Buffalo Irish Center last week, the front-running Democratic candidate for governor was peppered with questions from reporters.

What were his views on taxing tobacco sales on Indian reservations?

How about that lawsuit to remove Niagara Thruway tolls?

Spitzer could only bob and weave around the questions.

Because he is also the attorney general of New York, the state's chief legal officer, Spitzer has the governor and all of state government as his clients. And as the state's top legal defender, he often cannot even venture a comment.

Still, the attorney general offers hints of his feelings.

"You can't announce to the world that a law will simply be ignored and not enforced," Spitzer said when Gov. George E. Pataki's Department of Taxation and Finance a week ago reversed course and announced that it would not tax tobacco wholesalers selling to Indian retailers. "I will talk with [the Pataki administration] and act in a very, measured, careful manner, hopefully in conjunction with the executive."

In another case, Spitzer was asked to comment on a civil suit against the Thruway Authority and acting Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Madison, in which downtown developer Carl P. Paladino seeks to remove tolls on the Niagara Thruway.

"I don't want to make any premature pronouncements, but I will tell you we are looking very seriously at how we can eliminate them," Spitzer said. "It is an issue we are very conscious of, and I'll look at it in the full context of what the Thruway Authority has been doing."

Other instances involve his views on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's suit to require more spending in public education, last year's strike by New York City transit workers against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or his personal opinion on gay marriage in contrast to the state's legal restrictions.

Spitzer occupies an unprecedented niche in New York State history -- no attorney general in memory has run for governor.

Spokesman Darren Dopp acknowledged the uniqueness of Spitzer's role as a "legitimate line of inquiry." But until the time he might become governor, Spitzer's priority will be as attorney general, even if he must set aside his personal views, Dopp said.

"Nothing will change moving forward. He'll continue to place his responsibilities as the state's lawyer first," Dopp said. "He wants to oblige and will oblige, so long as it doesn't impair the office's ability to represent clients."

While leaving his job as attorney general to concentrate on his gubernatorial campaign could solve the problem, those close to him say that it's not going to happen. "Any idea that he will resign is dopey," said one source close to Spitzer.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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