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A Homecoming, With Relish

Al D’Amato is not a handshake kind of guy. He prefers the bear hug or a cuff to the back of the neck.

He greets even the doorman of his office building on Park Avenue with a “How ya doin’,” delivered with his trademark Long Island accent. Strangers get a handshake; close friends receive a chest-crushing hug and maybe even a pinch on the cheek.

Six years removed from a devastating loss that ended his political career, the former New York Senator is a celebrity at this week’s Republican National Convention and is clearly enjoying the attention.

“It is a [homecoming] but instead of me coming to Washington, most of Washington is here,” he said.

To celebrate that homecoming, D’Amato hosted a reception for a dozen or so Senators on Wednesday. The event was sponsored by the lobbying firm, Park Strategies, that he formed in the wake of his defeat by now-Sen. Charles Schumer (D).

D’Amato called the event “a nice opportunity to get together and find out what is happening in their individual races and see how the body politic is emerging.”

Although D’Amato insists he does not miss serving in the Senate, he acknowledges the campaign bug has never truly left him.

“Having been the former chairman of a campaign committee, that is something I still have an abiding interest in,” he said. “It never really dies. You always feel it, smell it.”

D’Amato led the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 1996 cycle when the GOP picked up two seats.

He remains in contact with a number of his former colleagues — on both sides of the aisle — and wades into races where he has a specific connection.

A case in point is Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R) re-election contest.

Both D’Amato and Specter were elected to the Senate in 1980 and remain close friends.

Specter faced a political near-death experience in late April when he narrowly beat back a primary challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey. Democrats are targeting Specter in the fall, though a slew of polls have shown him with a comfortable double-digit lead over Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D).

“I don’t always agree with Arlen on every single issue but we did everything we could to raise money and get others involved in that process of raising money,” D’Amato said. “That’s a labor of love.”

Specter said D’Amato “helped me a lot in the primary” and noted that his friend never fully received the credit he was due from his constituents.

“People didn’t appreciate him until we started on the homeland defense bill,” said Specter, adding that he helped secure $750 million for New York City after Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) asked him to help.

“D’Amato would have gotten $850 million,” Specter said.

When it came to choosing sides in GOP Senate primaries this year, D’Amato was less lucky with ex-Rep. Bill McCollum, who lost Tuesday’s primary to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez. D’Amato’s connection to McCollum is pollster Arthur Finkelstein, a longtime campaign adviser and political confidante.

Although Martinez was the hand-picked candidate of the White House, was endorsed by NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) and is expected to be given a hero’s welcome at the convention tonight, D’Amato showed little hesitation about condemning the former Cabinet secretary’s accusation that McCollum supports gay rights.

“He was obviously pandering,” said D’Amato. “His remarks were totally offensive and they have no place in our party.”

Bucking convention is nothing new for D’Amato.

In 2002, D’Amato found himself in the middle of a major controversy thanks to his decision to raise money for then Rep. John Sununu (R-N.H.) in his primary challenge to Sen. Bob Smith (R), a major no-no in the unwritten rules of the world’s most exclusive club.

Smith moved to block a bill to rename a courthouse in Islip, N.Y., after D’Amato, a piece of legislation that he had co-sponsored with New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R) just two months before. Smith lost to Sununu and D’Amato got his courthouse last June.

At a Republican Technology Council event at the Nasdaq on Monday, D’Amato made a beeline for Sununu when he found out the New Hampshire Senator was in attendance. A bear hug quickly followed.

In early July, D’Amato again stoked controversy by suggesting that President Bush should dump Vice President Cheney and replace him on the 2004 ticket with either Arizona Sen. John McCain or Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“I call them the way I see them,” D’Amato shrugged.

That frankness, which defined both the rise and fall of D’Amato’s political career, as well as his connections to some of the state’s most powerful figures, has served him extremely well in the private sector.

D’Amato has built Park Strategies into an eight-person operation with offices in New York, Albany and soon Washington, D.C. The firm lobbies on telecommunications, insurance, banking and entertainment issues.

“My years in the Senate and the people I know certainly helped on a career path,” D’Amato acknowledged.

Wayne Barrett, a senior editor at the Village Voice, called D’Amato “the most powerful lobbyist in New York,” and said that D’Amato is more powerful in the state now than he was in the Senate.

Much of that influence is due to his close relationship with Gov. George Pataki (R), who has long been a D’Amato protégé. Pataki, who will finish his third term in office in 2006, is widely seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2008.

D’Amato’s personal life also has changed dramatically since leaving office.

Once one of the most eligible bachelors in the Senate, he married Katuria Smith on July 18. The two are building a palatial beach house on Long Island.

At the Nasdaq event, one man complimented D’Amato, saying he “looked younger” than he had during his days in the Senate.

“That’s what marrying a younger woman will do for you,” shot back D’Amato, who is 66. Smith is 38.

“My life is much improved,” D’Amato said. “I’ve been blessed because I loved what I did but I don’t miss it.”

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