Gerry Meandering

Many handshakes and few ideas on the Ferraro campaign trail

Every other person pushing through the subway turnstile outside Shea Stadium seems to know Geraldine Ferraro. "Hey Geraldine, how are ya?" they shout to the U.S. Senate candidate, who on a recent afternoon transformed a patch of pavement near the ticket windows into a campaign stop. Hundreds of baseball fans stop to meet Ferraro. Sweaty, shirtless men squeeze the former congresswoman around the shoulders. And middle-aged women pull out disposable cameras to snap her picture.

Quick-thinking parents seize the chance to deliver a history lesson featuring Ferraro as Exhibit A. One particularly enthusiastic supporter drags over his daughter. "This lady ran for vice president," he says. Ferraro, 63, crouches down to shake the small girl's hand. As he leads her away, the father explains to his daughter: "She's going to be the next governor."

Oops. Not quite right. Ferraro whips around. "Senator! Senator!" she shouts.

Such is the candidate's predicament. Everyone knows her name, even if they don't know she's running in the Democratic primary on September 15 for a chance to unseat GOP senator Al D'Amato. Since Ferraro began her march down the campaign trail last January, she has posed for hundreds of photos, signed countless autographs, and received far more than her share of hugs. Fourteen years after Ferraro became the first woman to run for vicepresident, she is still reaping the benefits of her moment in the national spotlight.

But to win the U.S. Senate primary, Ferraro needs much more than fame. She needs votes--enough to beat two tough opponents, Public Advocate Mark Green and Brooklyn congressman Chuck Schumer. In this race, Ferraro has been the front-runner, and she's embraced a front-runner's strategy--a light public schedule, few detailed proposals, and hardly any debates. But in recent months, Ferraro's sizable lead has shrunk so much that she and Schumer are now running neck and neck. Critics charge she has been "coasting on her celebrity" and failed to give New Yorkers a convincing reason to vote for her.

"What is the rationale for her right now?" says Henry Sheinkopf, a political consultant. "That's the question people need answered. They like her. They just need to be pushed over the edge."

Some political experts wonder if Ferraro's true motive is a desire to avenge her 1992 defeat in the U.S. Senate primary. That year, she lost to former attorney general Robert Abrams by just one percentage point. After details of mob ties surfaced in the Voice, Ferraro's Democratic opponents used them to slam her. She accused critics of anti-Italian bias and denied any mafia connections.

In a January meeting at Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, Ferraro made an unsuccessful pitch to the chairs of the state's largest counties explaining why they should back her unanimously. "She basically said she was running because... she was so mistreatedin 1992," says an attendee, who is supporting one of Ferraro's opponents. "This was her rationale. It was a horrible, arrogant presentation."

But the question that could determine Ferraro's fate is: Does anyone besides political insiders really care how ill-defined Ferraro's message is? "I like her because she's a woman," says Sonya Delgado, 63, who bumped into Ferraro while the candidate was glad-handing beachgoers at the Fire Island ferries. "It sounds like a stupid reason, but why not? I like what she stands for." Asked exactly what Ferraro stands for, Delgado pauses, and says, "I can't think of one thing right now." The race is now in its final days, and Ferraro will win only if she manages to transform her celebrity into votes--and to convince supporters like Delgado to pull the lever for her.

Ferraro's journeyfrom little-known congresswoman to Walter Mondale's running mate is one of those political events that is frozen in the memories of late 20th-century Americans. She is indeed a historical icon. And her two-year stint as a co-host of CNN's Crossfire--getting into spitting matches with Republicans--only enhanced her celebrity.

As soon as they meet Ferraro, people blurt out the ways in which her life has intersected with theirs:

"You spoke at my brother's graduation."

"I wrote you when I was four years old."

"My mother has the same hairstyle as you--she's had it ever since you ran for vice president."

"You spoke at my community college in 1984, and you waved to me!"

When Gail Brick heard that Ferraro was visiting the county fair at her hometown in Long Island, she showed up with a copy of the candidate's 1985 autobiography. Ten minutes after Ferraro signs the book, Brick, 61, is still beaming. "Ever since she ran for vice president, I thought she was admirable," Brick says.

All this affection may be flattering, but Ferraro says she knows it is not enough. "If they're not paying attention on election day, what good does celebrity do?" says Ferraro as she strolls through the fair, past vendors peddling homemade potholders, wooden birdhouses, and pickled green tomatoes. "I'm just hoping that it translates into votes because, if it does, in November Al D'Amato is going to be emptying out his office."

The path to the U.S. Senate is a long and gritty one. Forget about basking under the lights in CNN's television studio or commanding crowds of thousands or zooming about town in a long black limo. Ferraro may be a millionaire, but her husband, John Zaccaro, is the one shuttling her around the city these days. Her campaign bus is actually a silver Lincoln Continental with a "Ferraro for Senate" sticker on the back bumper.

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