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Sans Date, N.Y. Special Heating Up

In the early weeks of the special election in New York’s 20th district, the public posture of the national political parties couldn’t be more different.

Just days after being elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele hopped a plane to Albany last week to confer with state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, the GOP nominee in the special election, and local party leaders.

Steele confidently called the race to replace newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) the place where the GOP would begin to regain its footing after two cycles of dismal defeats at the ballot box.

“We’ve come to play, and we’ve come to win,” Steele said during his visit to the Empire State.

How did national Democrats respond to this challenge? Pretty prosaically. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dispatched its press secretary, Ryan Rudominer, to run the communications shop of venture capitalist Scott Murphy, the Democratic nominee, for the duration of the campaign.

Which doesn’t mean that national Democrats aren’t doing what they can to elect Murphy. But it seems as if their early public declarations on the race are more about managing expectations than rallying the troops.

The numbers alone may explain why. The upstate district, which stretches from the exurbs of New York City north to the Adirondack Mountains, has 196,000 enrolled Republicans, 125,000 registered Democrats and 118,000 voters who are unaffiliated or belong to third parties. So when Steele calls the 20th the place where the GOP can reverse its fortunes, he isn’t taking a huge risk.

“If I’m the newly elected Republican chairman, this is where I’m going to want to cut my teeth,” said Larry Bulman, the Democratic chairman in Saratoga County, the biggest in the Congressional district. “They’re picking a seat that they never should have lost to begin with.”

Inevitably, although they are keeping their strategies closely held, both parties will probably wind up playing heavily in the special election. It’s the first competitive race of the 2010 cycle, and the stakes for both sides are simply too great.

Republicans want to build whatever momentum they can for the 2010 midterms. Democrats want to prove that Gillibrand’s victories in the rural district — and more broadly House Democratic wins in more than 80 districts that voted for Republican nominees in either one or both of the past two White House elections — were no fluke.

Bulman and political insiders in both parties say the DCCC and other leading national Democrats are making their presence felt behind the scenes, lining up support for Murphy and helping him build a campaign infrastructure. The DCCC for several days has blasted Tedisco in news releases, accusing him of billing taxpayers more than $21,000 for his state vehicle, even though his home and legislative district in Schenectady are just a few miles from the state Capitol in Albany.

What’s more, Gov. David Paterson (D) may be helping the cause by holding off on setting a date for the special election, giving Murphy a chance to introduce himself to voters in his race against Tedisco, who has been in the Legislature for more than a quarter-century and has been highly visible in his role as Minority Leader. The state Democratic committee currently features Murphy prominently on the home page of its Web site.

Even so, national Democrats remain cautious about their prospects.

“It’s a challenging district,” said Jennifer Crider, a DCCC spokeswoman. “But Scott Murphy is the strongest candidate, especially in these tough economic times. Not only is he talking about creating jobs, he has already created jobs in upstate New York.”

That’s a theme that Murphy’s team will return to frequently during the special election, arguing that the candidate’s history as an entrepreneur proves he is better able to navigate the economic crisis than a career politician.

“Families in New York’s 20th Congressional district are deeply worried about the economic downturn and are hungry for leaders like Scott Murphy, who don’t just talk about jobs during campaign season but who have actually spent their careers creating jobs,” Rudominer said.

Still, it’s probably fair to say that, at least outwardly, Tedisco’s first few days on the campaign trail have been smoother than Murphy’s. Tedisco has already had several sizable rallies around the district, and Steele’s remarks have fueled GOP enthusiasm.

“It’s just cultivated grass-roots support,” said Joshua Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Tedisco. “There’s a lot of buzz. It’s just going to build and build and build.”

Steele has tasked Michael Leavitt, the manager of his unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign, as his point person for the special election. Leavitt is in the district this week, meeting with Republican leaders.

But Steele isn’t the only national Republican figure talking up the race. At the House Republicans’ annual retreat last month, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) urged GOP Members to pony up to the committee to aid Tedisco. According to NRCC officials, at least four Members have already cut $10,000 checks.

Late on Friday, the three Republican Members in New York’s 29-person House delegation — Reps. Peter King, Chris Lee and John McHugh — issued a joint statement accusing Paterson of playing politics by refusing to set the special election date. (Unless he officially declares a vacancy this week, the election probably won’t be held until April.)

Republicans also took delight in Murphy’s shaky first few days as a candidate. First, he was selected by local Democratic chairmen as the nominee for the special election just a couple of hours before the Super Bowl kickoff, severely limiting the publicity that he would get in the immediate aftermath. And for the next few days, he was put on the defensive by Republican charges that he had been delinquent paying taxes on some of his business holdings.

“We’re very encouraged by the positive response Jim Tedisco has received from voters of all political parties — a stark contrast to the way his opponent has introduced himself to upstate New Yorkers,” said Paul Lindsay, a NRCC spokesman. “For a candidate with little or no name recognition, Scott Murphy has not done himself any favors by launching his campaign with a series of dishonest statements regarding his failure to pay taxes.”

Many Republicans have also touted a poll conducted for Tedisco last week that showed the GOP nominee with a 21-point lead over Murphy. The poll, taken by Public Opinion Strategies, found that Tedisco is well-known and fairly well-regarded across the district.

But the poll was taken Feb. 3-4, just two days after Murphy became the Democratic nominee. And while Republicans continue to hit him on the question of tax liens and his former businesses, Murphy seems to be moving forward. He will likely be far better known the next time a poll is taken on the race.

Murphy traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with Gillibrand, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leading Democrats and interest groups. He has begun meeting with party activists in the district. And he is expected to have a formal campaign kickoff later in the week.

Murphy is wealthy, and several Democrats believe he is poised to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the race — a prospect that strikes fear into the hearts of some Republicans.

Still, a veteran New York Democratic operative cautions that state and national party leaders will have to do their share — and do it publicly — if Murphy is to have a shot at winning.

“The power of the world has got to come here if you want to have a fighting chance,” the operative said. “Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions.”

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