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Democrat describes Paterson as 'toast' Governor's push fails to sway party figures

Since being unceremoniously undermined by President Obama, Gov. David A. Paterson has sprung to life.

He talks of a "mission" to run next year; rebukes lawmakers, unions and others who make his job harder; and makes nonstop appearances designed to undo talk of a dead-in-the-water politician.

Could the White House strategy to keep Paterson from running be backfiring?

Might New York's Democrats -- no slouches when it comes to geographic pride -- be upset with Chicago politicians telling them what to do?

Hardly.

"He's toast," one Democratic state senator said Friday, when asked if Paterson might be able to turn Obama's handiwork into an advantage.

"This was really personal, and it was real hardball," a party strategist said of Obama's strike against Paterson.

In the aftermath, Democrats -- reputed masters of internecine warfare -- posture publicly.

This week, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spoke of supporting the governor's election plans "right now."

State Sen. John L. Sampson of Brooklyn, leader of the chamber's Democratic Conference, demurred, saying, "We're behind him 150 percent until otherwise known."

But privately, many influential Democrats talk of the governor's political future in the past tense.

While many of the more than dozen senior Democrats interviewed said they feel sorry for a governor so publicly distanced by the White House, all said they believe Paterson will not be able to survive and run next year.

Friday, the governor again said he is running next year and vowed to keep serving "until the public tells me to stop."

His trusted allies say a stubbornness has overtaken him since his dismissal by the White House.

Though offers of help from some Democrats are coming in, Paterson has declined a support rally for fear of furthering the split with Obama.

Others talk of a "sympathy strategy" to win back voters.

"He's kind of enjoying the attention," noted one Democrat in Albany.

Richard Fife, the governor's new campaign manager, spoke of a new opportunity for Paterson.

"One of the effects of this is that people are taking a second look at the governor. To the extent when they look at the governor and see him dealing with the fiscal problems we have, creating jobs and fighting for New Yorkers for our benefit, our ability to use this new spotlight successfully will help the campaign," he said.

Fundraisers are being scheduled, Fife added.

"We're doing well," he said.

>Guest on 'Meet the Press'

Paterson is scheduled to appear Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" to discuss the "state of the economy, challenges facing governors nationwide and what true economic recovery will entail," according to his office. Presumably, his relationship with Obama will prompt a question or two.

Democrats who still support the governor say they can't come out right now and jump to his defense.

"Everyone is too nervous," said a Democrat, who like most interviewed, would speak only on condition that his name not be used.

But few want to come to his defense.

"This was another great big shovel on the pile. He's got to get out," a Democratic senator said.

Many party insiders did not return calls seeking comment -- from Sen. Charles E. Schumer to Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party.

Others wanted no part of the controversy.

"My focus is and remains Buffalo and Western New York. That's a discussion between the president and the governor. I'm not a party to it, said Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo.

Who would want to alienate the White House?

Democrats also said they do not want to risk alienating State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, in case he does run for governor and wins.

Paterson also has no real constituency. He rode into office as his lieutenant governor on the shoulders of Eliot L. Spitzer. With the fiscal crisis that has consumed his administration since he assumed office in March 2008 on the heels of the Spitzer scandal, he has had little time to build beyond his political base in his old State Senate district in Harlem.

>'Dirty work' draws cheers

Democrats view him as a liability, and many facing voters next year don't want to share the ticket with him.

"I was glad [the White House] did it," a senior Democrat said.

"They did our dirty work for us," a leading party strategist added.

Democrats already were searching for ways to push Paterson out next year as a candidate.

Cuomo has been hesitant to take Paterson on, having made a bad impression with blacks in 2002 with his primary challenge against H. Carl McCall, who was trying to become the state's first African-American governor.

But for several personal and policy reasons, the governor also has distanced himself from many black lawmakers in the State Senate.

Now, Obama has provided cover for a challenge by Cuomo.

But most party insiders say they do not believe it will come to that. And despite the governor's vows this week to run, they say he will see the obvious problems, including the record low17 percent approval rating in this week's Marist College poll.

The only question, they say, is when he pulls the plug, and his pledges to stay in the race draw skepticism.

"I think anything is possible in politics," said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo. "But with approval ratings hovering around 20 percent, or even below, it would be extraordinary."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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