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And that opponent, the candidate's polling shows, is Cox. "He has a robust résumé which no one knew about because he didn't hold any press conferences," Mueller explains. But when the pollsters introduced people to Cox, playing up his work abroad and at home, Mueller adds, "they responded. They said, 'I like this guy.' "
Reality, it seems, is bearing out those polls. Cox has managed to impress people up and down the campaign trail, pressing the flesh at convenience stores, farm stands, and clambakes, delighting dairy farmers, machine shop workers, and even girls in tiaras.
"I'm happy to inform you that Ed Cox impressed everyone who crossed his path, including my raccoon hunter," says Dan Olson, who heads the Wayne County Republican Committee, and who took Cox on a whirlwind tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline. Everywhere the candidate went, he provoked what Olson calls "spontaneous applause," a feat for any city dweller among a "well-reserved group of upstate Republicans."
The candidate, says Olson, one of nine county chairmen to endorse Cox, "is a nice guy. He was as at ease with the guy who hunts raccoons as with the fair princesses."
That Cox has turned out to have folksy charm seems an added plus, an unexpected quality in a man viewed as coming from privilege. But what wows those GOP activists who have embraced Cox is his list of credentials. Consider the reaction of Bob Smith, chair of the Onondaga County Republican Committee, when he met the candidate last June. Smith had never heard of Cox outside of the Nixon connection. But then, he recalls, Cox told him about his tenure on the judicial-review panel. "I said, 'Oh, well, I didn't know that,' " Smith relays. Then Cox ticked off the parks commission, and the school board, and a host of other projects.
"I said to him, 'Ed, you've got to tell people about these things,' " Smith says. "We didn't even know he had all that experience."
John Aspland, of the Washington County Republican Committee, agrees, calling his candidate of choice "the most qualified to run for United States Senate." When it comes to the breadth and depth of experience needed to do a senator's job, he and others argue, there is no comparison.
"Personally," Aspland says, referring to Cox's popular GOP rival, "I'd like to see Pirro run for attorney general."
So what does the state party's leadership see in its supposed favored candidate?
Ryan Moses, the party's executive director, points out that the only state leader to endorse Pirro is Minarik, who did so in his role as head of the Monroe County GOP. The state committee, meanwhile, has yet to endorse any of its 2006 statewide candidates. Currently, the party base is weighing the contenders, including Pirro and Cox, interviewing them in a series of meetings statewide. "Ed Cox is a great guy," Moses says, "and we're glad to have him be part of this process."
Whether Pirro shares the sentiment is anyone's guess. When asked if the candidate sees Cox as a threat, or if she fears losing momentum, her aides tell the Voice: "Jeanine Pirro is focusing on the only race that matters. She is confident she will defeat Hillary Clinton next November."
And if her enthusiasts are fretting about the state of her candidacy, they're not showing it. After all, they argue, Pirro is a powerful, dynamic woman, who has one thing Cox doesn't: proven electability. She knows how to stump and raise money; she's battle-tested. And because Pirro is generally a moderate Republicanshe's pro-choice, for instance, while Cox opposes abortion rightsshe represents the kind of candidate who can woo suburban soccer moms on both sides of the aisle. In the words of one party insider, "I see this race as Jeanine and Hillary. That's the only way I see it."
Who knows what will happen next? Who knows if a majority of GOP activists will follow the lead of Minarik and back Pirro, or if they'll buck the leadership and embrace the underdog? A poll released on September 30 has the candidates essentially tied, with Pirro predicted to gain 35 percent of the vote in a race against Clinton, compared to 34 percent for Cox in that same contest.
Cox, for his part, is gearing up for a fight, traveling the country, raising moneycurrently, he has a war chest of $768,014, most of it from his personal bank account. He may have a leg up on Pirro, who's yet to file any campaign finance records. Clinton, on the contrary, has collected $12.5 million, and counting. Still, he says he plans to make his candidacy official as early as this fall. "I wouldn't be doing all this if I didn't think I was a qualified candidate," he says. Maybe if he weren't so modest he'd put it as Mueller does. "There's a perception that with [Pirro's] star quality and her being the anointed candidate, Ed Cox would roll over and play dead," his strategist says. "But nothing could be further from the truth."