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In the Big Apple, Political Fortunes Can Change in a New York Minute

No one is ever really ready for the chaos and confusion of a New York primary—the way everything can change in a New York minute. I certainly wasn’t. As a 28-year-old greenhorn reporter for The New York Times, I was there the moment Ed Koch uttered the words that would help destroy Al Gore’s candidacy in 1988—and I missed the story.

At noon on April 1—which just happened to be both April Fool’s Day and Good Friday—the mayor was rushing down the steps of City Hall on his way to lunch when The New York Post’s intrepid City Hall reporter, Doug Feiden, asked Koch how New York’s large Jewish community should react to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s surprising successes in primary and caucus contests that year. Among many Jews, Jackson’s reputation had never recovered from his “Hymietown” comment four years earlier.

Jews, Koch said, “gotta be crazy” to vote for Jackson, and drove off. But I didn’t write it. After all, this was New York, the city of tough talk and over-the-top rhetoric (Donald Trump, born in Queens, didn’t come from just anywhere). Koch “says things like that all the time,” I told my editors when they asked me, after the city’s tabloids splashed Koch’s broadside across their front pages, how I could have blown it so badly. Two weeks later, when the mayor endorsed Gore, his embrace became the kiss of death. Koch took an ashen-faced Gore—who had made his own sharp criticisms of Jackson—to campaign at his old lucky subway stop on the Upper East Side, proclaiming, “Al Gore has a touch of greatness!” Gore’s campaign never recovered.

It would be too easy to say that the New York primary is the Bermuda Triangle of American politics—the place where presidential (or reportorial) ambitions disappear in a swirling vortex, never to prevail again. New York has also been the scene of Sword-of-Excalibur wins, like Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory after a smart questioner elicited the confession that he had smoked marijuana but not inhaled, and after his raw wrangle with “snotty nose” critics—the phrase he infamously used to refer to an early AIDS activist who disrupted a posh fundraising event with a cry from the heart about a disease then still too easy for politicians to ignore.

What is beyond dispute is that the New York primary is an election in which anything can happen—and usually does. After all, Paul Tsongas came in second there in 1992—after he had dropped out of the race. Trump has a prohibitive lead over Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders may be trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, but Sanders is hoping a last-minute weekend trip to the Vatican might win him enough progressive support to cause one last thrill worthy of the Coney Island Cyclone.

In fact, New York’s typical storminess is the perfect setting for unpredictability in this election, when three of the four front-running contenders are New Yorkers by one measure or another, and the fourth—Sen. Ted Cruz—is an avowed enemy of “New York values” and the Big Apple’s live-and-let-live-but-drop-dead-anyway ethos. Until now, the current candidates’ trials in New York have actually been fairly mild, by the standards of the game. But the final weekend has a way of bringing surprises.

New Yorkers embrace many values—including candor, tough talk and a kind of “prove it!” skepticism that could make a Show-Me-State Missourian blush. Politics in the Empire State is, first last and always a contact sport, with shifting alliances and a keen eye on the mood of the marketplace.

Hillary Clinton got a taste of that earlier this campaign season when Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once managed Clinton’s campaign for the Senate, became one of the early harbingers of the Sanders insurgency by taking his time endorsing her. Then his racially tinged joke about that delay—that he was “running on C.P. time,” or “Colored People Time”—fell flat at the Inner Circle political roast last weekend, especially with Clinton participating in the skit. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose touchy rivalry with de Blasio is almost as celebrated as his father’s with Koch, invited Clinton to share the limelight when he recently signed the state’s new minimum wage law.

Could de Blasio’s crack sour things for Hillary, who still has a double-digit lead over Bernie? What about the awkward video of her trying to enter the subway, when her first attempts to swipe a MetroCard failed? (Sanders’ embarrassment was greater: He thought he still needed a token to ride). On the GOP side, Trump is way ahead, but his children aren’t even registered to vote in the Republican primary on Tuesday. The Daily News headline on an event in the Bronx where Cruz was booed? “Take the F U Train, Ted!” So nu? (That’s Yiddish for “Whatcha gonna do?”)

“It’s a very fast town, and the press is a great part of it,” says George Arzt, a longtime reporter for the New York Post who later served as Koch’s press secretary. “They’re always looking for a headline and political candidates who don’t know what’s coming are walking right into it. You have every group, everyone with a different agenda. If you don’t run afoul of someone, you’re just not running a campaign.”

In 1992, Bill Clinton had not yet fully developed his reputation as one of the world’s great parsers of words. But, when asked about past drug use, he had taken to saying he had never broken the laws of his country. Marcia Kramer, then as now a crack reporter for WCBS-TV, well-schooled in the legalistic sophistries of Gov. Mario Cuomo, sensed an opening. Had Clinton, she asked, ever broken the laws of another country? Say, England, where he was Rhodes Scholar at Oxford?

“I experimented with marijuana a time or two,” Clinton confessed. “And I didn’t like it, and didn’t inhale, and never tried it again.” Asked later why he had never acknowledged marijuana use in response to more general questions on the topic, Clinton replied: “That’s not the specific question I’ve been asked in the past. If anybody had asked the question, I’d have answered it.”

New York clearly rattled Clinton. After he laced into Bob Rafsky, a vocal AIDS activist who repeatedly interrupted his speech at a fundraiser, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked: “Is Bill Clinton cracking under the stress of the presidential campaign? Or was his outburst at an AIDS activist last week a calculated jab to show that he’s tough, combative and not so slick after all?”

Sometimes it’s not a lack of candor but a surfeit that gets candidates in trouble in New York. In 1976, Jimmy Carter’s aide Hamilton Jordan “said something like ‘We don’t need New York,’’’ Arzt recalls. “And quickly Mario Cuomo, who was backing Carter, walked him off it, but it was too late. Carter himself compounded the problem by saying he opposed “special favors” for financially strapped New York City, and he came in third, behind Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Morris Udall.

New Yorkers tend to take their tribal politics—rivalries between the mayor and governor, conflicts with still-powerful labor unions, tabloid newspaper wars—in stride. But as Joyce Purnick, the longtime former New York Times political reporter, notes, “standard New York politics” can be “a nightmare for presidential candidates.”

“Anything goes here,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University and a longtime watcher of the local political scene. “This campaign is giving the tabloids a heart transplant. Bill de Blasio has all kinds of problems and they’re being completely subsumed by the Clinton and Trump campaigns. The Mets are off to a slow start and the Yankees are too old. The amount of time for sports on TV every night is diminished because politics is there.”

“The tabloids are doing two- and three-page spreads every day,” Moss adds. “They’re showing every house Bernie Sanders ever lived in.”

The candidates have made all the required pilgrimages, for ethnic food (Clinton ordered tandoori takeout in Jackson Heights, Queens) and neighborhood loyalties. Sanders’s Hail Mary trip to the Vatican this weekend is itself a kind of updated homage to the onetime trinity of overseas stops required of all good New York politicians: Ireland, Israel and Italy—though he’s doing it to win cred with liberals who like Pope Francis, not Italian-Americans, who help form the backbone of Trump’s support in New York State.

Clinton and Sanders’s bitter debate in Brooklyn notwithstanding, the current candidates’ trials in New York have actually been fairly mild, by the standards of the game. And the absence of larger-than-life figures like Koch and Cuomo may well have played a part in that. Koch’s aides are quick to note that while their boss long disdained Trump as a showboat whose “next book should be called ‘The Art of the Steal,’” the former mayor, a fierce supporter of Israel, would have excoriated Sanders for his sympathy to the Palestinian cause.

Still, the final weekend sometimes has a way of bringing surprises. For better or worse, on Wednesday morning, the victors will have bragging rights to that hoariest of Big Apple boasts: If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

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