In Schumer, D'Amato finally faces an opponent who's as hardheaded, shameless, and effective as he is. Usually D'Amato dictates a campaign, and his opponent desperately plays defense. Schumer has turned the tables on D'Amato. The first day after the Democratic primary, Schumer unleashed "Too many lies for too long" ads. More recently, D'Amato stupidly (but innocently, I think) called Schumer a "putzhead," then denied having said it. ("Putz" is a Yiddish insult that literally means "penis" but in common usage means "fool.") Schumer has managed to gin this into an ongoing controversy about D'Amato's trustworthiness and to score major points with Jewish voters. Since last week's murder of a New York abortion doctor, Schumer's people have subtly tried to connect the anti-abortion D'Amato with the extremist right-to-lifers.
And every time D'Amato has attacked, Schumer has fired it back in his face. D'Amato tried to exploit the ill feelings between New York City and upstate. He ran an ad upstate depicting Schumer as a New York City shark swimming up the Hudson. Schumer immediately countered by running the D'Amato commercial in New York City, labeling it "the ad Al D'Amato doesn't want you to see." D'Amato's latest strategy--to tar Schumer as a lazy, "part-time" congressman who skips votes--seems to be backfiring as well. Newspaper after newspaper has berated D'Amato for this patently dishonest strategy, noting that Schumer is probably the hardest-working member of Congress.
Schumer, like D'Amato, is aggressive, opportunistic, and unpleasant in more ways that I care to discover. But there is a fundamental difference between them. D'Amato is the éminence grise (or perhaps the éminence noire) of the corrupt Nassau County Republican machine. He believes that politics is about bending the rules for cronies and campaign contributors, and he has been implicated in more gross behavior than almost any politician around. Schumer is clean. He doesn't cheat. He may have moderated his views to win, but he is mostly principled and mostly honest.
Even so, out-D'Amatoing D'Amato on the campaign trail may not be enough. Some signs are promising for Schumer. A week out, the polls are dead even and actually seem to be trending slightly in Schumer's favor. D'Amato has been distracted by Putzgate, and Schumer is getting sweet PR off Hillary's visit and the president's planned campaign appearance Friday.
But it's hard to imagine that D'Amato will lose. He has saved his war chest. He and the GOP will spend $8 million on an ad blitz during the five days leading up to the election: Schumer has saved only a small fraction of that. You can be sure that the D'Amato ads will be cheap and distorted, but that at least something from them will stick to Schumer.
Every article about Schumer notes that he has never lost an election. But neither has D'Amato.
Recent "Campaign '98" Dispatches
"The Gambling Gamble": South Carolina's Democrats Bet the Farm
"Foghorn Leghorn Meets an Owl": Sen. Fritz Hollings vs. Rep. Bob Inglis. (posted Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1998)