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POLITICS / NORTHEAST TURMOIL : Party Leaders Out of Step With Their Front-Runners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These are trying times for political party leaders in the Northeast.

In Massachusetts, the Democratic contender most favored by voters to succeed outgoing Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Boston University President John R. Silber, is the one least liked by party officials. Delegates at the recent Democratic state convention included Silber’s name on the party’s primary ballot only after fears of a voter backlash.

In Connecticut, Republican leaders who were confident of a gubernatorial victory for the first time in two decades find that a maverick Republican, former Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., running as an independent is atop the polls.

In New York, Republican bosses searching for a candidate to go up against Gov. Mario M. Cuomo ended up nominating a Manhattan economist, Pierre A. Rinfret, who is not even a registered Republican.

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“There hasn’t been a year like this one in recent memory,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N. Y.

The stage was set for much of the current political turmoil by the region’s mounting economic troubles. After years of impressive growth and prosperity, the Northeast has become afflicted by a downturn that has created massive shortages in tax revenues and sent state budget deficits soaring.

As this year’s political season approached, incumbent governors across the region weighed the risks of seeking another term in office amid the rising tide of red ink and voter discontent. Three of them--all Democrats--decided to call it quits: Dukakis, William A. O’Neill of Connecticut and Madeleine M. Kunin of Vermont.

Here is the rundown on the resulting headaches in party offices:

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Massachusetts

Lt. Gov. Evelyn F. Murphy, former state Atty. Gen. Francis X. Bellotti and House Taxation Committee Chairman John H. Flood joined the fray as contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, but the candidate who captured the public fancy was a political newcomer--Silber.

Silber denounced state party leaders as members of “Club Cuckooland,” suggested ending welfare benefits for unmarried mothers who have a second child and accused Jews of “phenomenal” racism.

As a result, Silber was apparently falling far short of the 15% vote he needed from delegates to the state party convention to win a place on the September primary ballot. But, in late May, not long before the convention was to meet, a poll of likely Democratic and independent voters gave Silber 28% of the vote, compared with 23% for Murphy, 19% for Bellotti and 5% for Flood.

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That set off maneuvering to lend Silber the convention support he needed to reach the primary. He squeaked by with 15.46% of the vote, while Bellotti won the party’s endorsement.

Connecticut

The independent gubernatorial candidacy of Weicker, a liberal Republican, has thrown the GOP into disarray.

Weicker holds a commanding lead in the polls over Republican Rep. John G. Rowland and Democratic Rep. Bruce A. Morrison, the front-runners in their respective parties. A survey of randomly selected residents in late May gave 41% of the vote to Weicker, 14% to Rowland and 9% to Morrison.

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State Republican Chairman Richard Foley has called Weicker’s campaign an exercise in “Don Quixote politics” and has blasted state GOP leaders backing the former three-term senator, who was unseated in 1988 by Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.

Republicans have been underdogs in Connecticut’s gubernatorial politics for decades, but their hopes this year were buoyed by the state’s growing fiscal problems and O’Neill’s decision not to seek a third full term in office.

New York

Republican leaders searched for nearly a year and went through at least 19 potential candidates before they found one willing to challenge Cuomo’s expected bid for a third term.

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Cuomo is plagued by fiscal troubles, including a drop in the state’s credit rating. Nevertheless, he remains so popular with voters that even Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato turned down the chance to run against him this year.

The state GOP’s eventual choice, 66-year-old Rinfret (pronounced rin-FRAY), a Canadian-born multimillionaire economist, says: “I’ve always been a Republican.” But registration rolls show him as an independent.

Rinfret’s nomination, plus the adoption of a plank in support of abortion rights, infuriated the Conservative and Right-to-Life parties, two minor parties in New York that almost always ally themselves with Republicans.

The Conservatives nominated New York University Prof. Herbert London for governor, and the Right-to-Life Party nominated Louis Wein, a Staten Island businessman.

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“I’d rather see Mario Cuomo as governor than Mr. Rinfret,” Wein said.


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