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The cry of the candidate -- UPSTATE! As the 2006 political season unfolds, the economy upstate is certain to be a bell that gets rung often

ALBANY -- In the editing rooms where political campaigns are put together, images of dying neighborhoods and shuttered manufacturing plants are being cataloged.

Speechwriters for candidates are dueling for the most descriptive words to describe the dire state of New York State.

And candidates for governor, U.S. senator and other statewide offices are spending hours each day muscling each other to convince voters of who is most sympathetic.

Welcome to the 2006 political season, where, once again, candidates running for statewide office have latched on to the upstate economy as the central theme.

In what has become a ritualistic path for statewide office seekers the past six years, candidates are talking about the sagging upstate economy -- laying blame and staking out possible solutions for a region troubled by continuing population losses and stagnant job growth.

It is a tactic borrowed from the successful campaigns of the likes of George E. Pataki, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton. All, in their first statewide races, made the upstate economy a searing topic to attack their opponents.

But where will the bold rhetoric and lofty plans be Nov. 8, the day after the contests are decided?

Upstate voters and business executives interviewed say that they appreciate any attention given to the economy but that they have seen the issue quickly fade after election.

B. Thomas Golisano, the Rochester billionaire and three-time gubernatorial candidate, talks of a steady stream of statewide politicians saying "what people in upstate are hoping to hear -- some ray of hope or promise that things can get better. But it doesn't happen. These people are trying to get elected, so they tell people the things they might want to hear."

"We've had to endure the policies of Albany and its negative impact on its economy for 50 years. Everybody knows what the issues are. Nobody will do anything about them," he said.

Western New York, a key battleground in statewide contests and poster child for a region hit by a soured economy, has become ground zero in the debate.

"We've had attention in the past, most prominently at election time, and we still have not had a measurable change in the conditions affecting the upstate economy," said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

>The issue works well

There is a reason it's an issue: It works for candidates.

More precisely, it works for challengers against incumbents or for those promoting an agent-for-change theme.

It's also why voters see challengers-turned-incumbents -- such as Pataki, Schumer and Clinton -- talk more about upstate successes during re-election bids. In one recent appearance, for instance, Clinton pointed to some needs upstate but added there are "a lot of positive developments happening" in the region.

In 1994, Pataki held sessions outside shuttered plants, slamming the economic policies of Mario Cuomo. "Our economy is getting worse, and it's Mario Cuomo's fault," said Pataki's first ad.

Today, Pataki finds his own policies under attack, and not just by Democrats trying to succeed him. In a break from the past, his fellow Republicans no longer hesitate to rail against the conditions upstate -- whether or not it upsets the lame-duck governor.

Internal polls taken by campaigns over the years show there is no more burning issue upstate than the economy.

"When you campaign upstate, what are you going to talk about other than the economy?" said Jack Cookfair, a Republican consultant.

Take Schumer, considered among Democrats the godfather of the upstate economy issue. In 1994, when pushing a gun control bill, he said, "Crime is the No. 1 issue."

Four years later, as a Brooklyn resident trying to woo upstaters against Republican Alfonse D'Amato, Schumer shifted gears to the upstate economy.

"There is a fire raging in upstate and Western New York," he said the day he announced his campaign in Buffalo.

D'Amato countered with ads targeting Schumer as a downstate liberal.

>Schumer beats D'Amato

Schumer, meanwhile, railed against high upstate air fares and energy costs. In the end, Schumer ate into areas of D'Amato's traditional upstate GOP base, carrying six upstate counties and coming close in many others.

"We could use it as an argument for change," Josh Isay, who ran Schumer's 1998 campaign, said of the economy theme. "There was a sense that the issues of the upstate economy and understanding the plight of upstate New Yorkers gave downstate Democrats a chance to win upstate votes."

It seemed a logical strategy, but one that many downstate candidates had not done in the past. Traditionally, statewide contests often zeroed in on New York City and its suburbs with some fly-arounds to upstate airports as courtesy calls.

That worked well in 1960, said Utica pollster John Zogby, when 42 percent of the vote was in New York City, 18 percent in the suburbs and 39 percent upstate.

But today, because of shifting demographics, only 31 percent of the statewide vote comes from New York City, with 29 percent from its suburbs and 40 percent from upstate.

Enter the upstate economy.

"It's the major cohesive issue in all of upstate. It's as much an issue in Binghamton as it is in Poughkeepsie as it is in Buffalo and all places in the middle," Zogby said.

The lessons of Schumer carried over to Hillary Rodham Clinton's victory over former Rep. Rick A. Lazio in 2000 for the U.S. Senate.

Lazio started off in a bind. He was Pataki's choice to run against Clinton, but criticism of the economy by Lazio meant criticism of Pataki.

Lazio's strategy? He talked of the "great progress" seen upstate. "I do believe the upstate economy has turned the corner," he said.

By the end of the campaign, Lazio was depicted as out of touch, and Clinton, a newcomer to New York, captured 47 percent of the upstate vote, winning in counties where Democrats could only once dream of finding votes.

"When all was said and done, Hillary was the local girl and Lazio became the carpetbagger," Zogby said.

This year, things are different. With Pataki leaving, Republicans trying to take his job have no fears of raising alarms over the economy -- even if it dents Pataki's image as he angles for a possible White House run.

>Lesson of Lazio

For months, three Republicans -- William Weld, John Faso and Randy Daniels -- have been tagging big government spending, mandates, Medicaid, energy and others as the culprits in upstate's ills.

"They looked at Lazio, and they looked at Hillary, and they looked at Schumer and said, 'We can't say everything is rosy. It doesn't work,' " Cookfair said.

Faso said it's an obvious issue for gubernatorial candidates.

"The issue is not going to get solved by federal representatives in Washington. It has to get solved by people in Albany," he said.

While he has been talking it up for months, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's recent likening of upstate to Appalachia catapulted the issue into the headlines.

"I have used language that is vividly designed to highlight the magnitude of the problem," Spitzer said of his analogy, which Republicans, including Pataki, have pounced on as an unfair slap at upstate.

Unfair, perhaps, to Appalachia, where the economy in much of the region is faring far better than upstate.

>Appalachia doing better

Appalachia takes in part or all of 14 states, including 13 counties that stretch across the Southern Tier of New York. Those 13 counties lost 1.4 percent of their population from 1990 to 2000, while the rest of Appalachia gained 9.1 percent.

If one of those counties -- Allegany -- were situated in West Virginia, the heartland of Appalachia, its per capita personal income of $19,925 would rank it 35th among that state's 55 counties.

Spitzer said he understands the skepticism upstaters might feel toward politicians barnstorming the economy theme. But he insists his record as attorney general, "taking on tough battles and getting results," should ease those concerns.

"It is not merely saying, 'Trust me,' " he said.

Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College, said Spitzer, if he wins, is raising the bar high for himself -- not unlike Clinton, with her unfulfilled plan in 2000 to create 200,000 jobs upstate.

"Should Spitzer win, he'd [be viewed as] primarily responsible for the upstate economy," Klinkner said. "It would then go from being why hasn't Pataki done anything about the upstate economy to why haven't the Democrats?"

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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