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Fears fuel push for Paterson to step aside Drag on ticket worries Obama, aides confide

The White House decision to leak word that President Obama does not want Gov. David A. Paterson to run next year was fueled by worries that key federal and state elected posts could be lost to Republicans with Paterson at the top of the ticket, senior party officials said Sunday.

All party insiders agreed on one thing: The governor now faces a near-impossible task of trying to win a full term next year, with Obama giving at least tacit blessing for State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to wage a primary campaign against Paterson if the governor does not step aside.

A defiant Paterson said Sunday he has no intention of doing that.

"I've said time and time again I am going to run for governor next year -- my plans have not changed," Paterson said during an appearance in Harlem.

"I am running for office," he emphasized, declining to answer questions about his meetings with White House emissaries on the issue.

The president and Paterson are scheduled to appear this morning at a community college in Troy, at a White House event on the role of higher education in turning around the nation's economy. Cuomo also is invited.

Through Patrick Gaspard, his political director, the president urged Paterson early last week to step aside to head off the chance any big-name Republicans would enter races for governor or the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, said officials with knowledge of the White House maneuver. They said Obama also is worried about losing some marginal House seats in the state.

"It shows the White House is already thinking about the midterm elections and how serious they are for the electoral landscape next year," a Democratic strategist said. With the president's party often suffering congressional losses in such elections, the White House needs to shore up the party's base states -- including New York -- to be able to concentrate time and money in such states as Virginia and Missouri, officials said.

Democrats in both New York State and Washington consider Paterson, whose job approval rating stood at 20 percent in one poll last week, capable of dragging down other party candidates, including Gillibrand and Democrats in the State Senate, where they now hold a narrow lead.

With redistricting to follow next year's election, Democrats want to maintain control of the governor's office and Legislature to be in charge of drawing congressional and legislative boundaries for the decade to come.

"They're very worried about New York Democratic politics," a longtime top Democrat said of the White House.

The Obama administration let word leak out Saturday through a story on the New York Times Web site that indicates Gaspard, an African-American with long ties to the state Democratic Party, failed to persuade Paterson not to run.

"They felt [Paterson] was not listening to reasoning," said one party official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Just days after the meeting with Gaspard, Paterson named a director for next year's campaign, which the White House viewed as a defiant move.

Paterson, meanwhile, said he has not spoken with Obama.

But Friday night, Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Queens Democrat with ties to Obama, gave the governor a similar message.

Until this weekend, most Democrats believed Paterson would come under pressure in coming weeks from black Democrats who have fallen out of favor with the governor.

But Democrats said Sunday the White House feared Republicans, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Rep. Rick Lazio of Long Island, are becoming emboldened to enter the race against Paterson. Former Gov. George E. Pataki, another Republican, has been doing well in polls in a potential U.S. Senate race against Gillibrand.

"They want to shut this down right now. Get Paterson out. Get Andrew in at the top so they don't have to worry about the Senate race and that they can hold onto congressional seats here," a party strategist said of the Obama administration's decision to "go to the nuclear option."

For Cuomo, the White House move has the added benefit that, coming from a black president, forces close to Paterson cannot claim race was behind the president's motivations.

The president's move puts the governor on a political ice floe.

At the very least, it will make raising money even more difficult because some potential contributors might not want to be seen as siding with Paterson over Obama.

"This is going to be very hard for the governor to run after this," a senior Democratic Party official with ties to the White House said Sunday.

Democrats say that while Paterson initially has rebuffed the White House overture, he also could be trying to put himself in a position to achieve a "soft landing," with the possibility of a private sector job or a post in the Obama administration.

But a Paterson decision anytime soon not to run would have a chilling impact on his ability to deal with the Legislature and the special-interest community during what would be more than a year remaining in his administration.

If Paterson does leave office for some other job before his term is up in 15 months, major succession issues arise.

Paterson appointed Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor, but that is the subject of a lawsuit. The state's highest court is expected to rule in the coming weeks on whether the appointment violates the State Constitution.

If the court rules against Paterson and Ravitch cannot serve, the head of the State Senate would be next in line. That would be certain to trigger a battle in the Senate Democratic conference, the scene of leadership battles all year.

"Of course there's concern," Sen. Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat who was chairman of Obama's New York presidential campaign, said of the latest development. "I think it's obvious that if the White House did this, it is not good news. Clearly, the White House's opinion matters."

Perkins also said Paterson still has time to turn things around.

"Clearly, others' opinions -- whether the president or Bill Perkins -- will have some bearing, but ultimately it's the opinion of the people whose opinions are determined by how well they are served that makes the difference," he said.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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