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In New York, GOP Faces Tough Contests

BRIAN MANN: New York is often thought of as bedrock Democratic. But upstate voters have long sent Republicans to Congress. In 1994, they also helped Republican Governor George Pataki unseat a Democratic icon. Fred Lebrun is a veteran political columnist with the Albany Times Union.

MANN: George Pataki, after he defeated Mario Cuomo, was probably the most powerful politician in the State of New York. In no time flat, the Democrats sort of disappeared.

MANN: But 12 years later, Pataki is leaving office. Democrats safely hold both Senate seats, and Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer holds a commanding lead in the governor's race. Many Republican leaders, including State Senator Ray Meier - now a candidate for Congress - say their state party has lost its way.

S: I think there is a sense that we've become aloof. That we've become too concerned with power and not enough with the concerns of everyday folks.

MANN: Meier is running neck-to-neck with his Democratic opponent in a district west of Albany that was once a Republican fiefdom. And he's not alone. Just next door, another once safe Republican incumbent, John Sweeney, is locked in one of the nastiest political campaigns in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

U: (In television clip) Either Gillibrand misled the government or is simply not telling the truth.

MANN: With money from the Democratic National Congressional Committee, challenger Kirsten Gillibrand is firing back.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

U: (In television clip) So why is John Sweeney lying? Maybe because he doesn't want you to remember that he is one of President Bush's biggest supporters in the Congress.

MANN: Columnist Fred Lebrun says the GOP is vulnerable here, in part because New York's conservative, rural communities are losing population and voters while the state's suburbs are shifting steadily to the left.

MANN: Areas where you could count on almost an undiluted Republican vote were in towns like Bethlehem and Niskayuna. In recent years, they've gone either right to dead even or slightly Democratic. And I think that reflects suburbs state-wide.

MANN: The trend is heightened this year by hostility to President George Bush, whose approval ratings in New York have bumped along in the low 30 percent range. Donna Gillette(ph) is a voter who lives near Utica.

MANN: I'm extremely disgusted with what the current Republican administration has made its priorities.

MANN: Democrats have capitalized on the national move by fielding a strong slate of candidates, led and funded by New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

U: Wonderful.

U: Good to see you. Good to see you.

U: Bob, how are you?

U: Great to see you. It's going. It's going.

U: Yeah? Yeah? Go get them. (Unintelligible).

MANN: At this packed gathering in Saranac Lake, Spitzer rallied Democrats and helped raise money for Congressional candidates like Bob Johnson.

MANN: The Democrats are very energized now. The Democrats are just over the moon.

MANN: Republicans concede that their slate hasn't generated the same kind of energy. Some leaders have put a share of the blame on Governor Pataki, who spent much of the last two years testing the presidential waters in Iowa and New Hampshire as he prepares to leave office.

Pataki says GOP candidates in New York will have to make their own way.

G: No one's going to part the waters and anoint the next governor or the next senator or the next attorney general. What I would do is just urge our candidates to do what I did. Go out there and make the case, knock on the doors, shake hands.

MANN: Republicans are fighting hard upstate, and still enjoy a significant advantage in voter registration.

MANN: How are you?

MANN: This sweltering summer afternoon, Republican John Sweeney is marching in a parade through Schuylerville, wearing an American flag necktie and rolled up shirt sleeves. For the GOP to hold the line, Sweeney says upstate candidates will need to turn out a wave of support in New York's conservative small towns.

MANN: If I get my voters out to vote, I'll do fine. But certainly, it is a point of some concern if your state party isn't performing up to its capabilities.

MANN: Win or lose, these newly competitive races in upstate New York are siphoning Republican dollars from other contests around the country in a year when the GOP's national fund-raising advantage is already much smaller. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.