For 10 years, New York Gov. George E. Pataki has labored to build a name for himself in national politics. For just as long, Rudolph W. Giuliani has overshadowed him.
Tonight, Pataki will finally command the nation’s attention with his introduction of President Bush at the Republican National Convention. For a governor long seen as holding White House ambitions, the Madison Square Garden spotlight offers a chance to show the country that Giuliani is not the only New York Republican worth watching.
“When he starts ringing doorbells in Iowa or New Hampshire, people will remember that he was the guy who gave this speech,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic strategist who sees tonight as the unofficial kickoff of Pataki’s 2008 campaign for president.
Pataki, 59, deflects frequent questions on his presumed interest in the presidency by saying his focus until November is Bush’s reelection. But he told ABC News this week, “If you’re in politics, of course you’re going to think about things.”
Over the last year, Pataki has traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire, California, Oregon, Washington and other states, often raising money for Bush. By collecting more than $9 million, he has earned a spot in Bush’s top tier of financial backers and gathered chits for his future.
Yet Pataki’s national profile has remained relatively low. It was Giuliani, another possible White House contender and a Monday convention speaker, who as New York mayor captured the nation’s attention with his response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Pataki has made reconstruction of the World Trade Center a central focus of his third term, but in the initial recovery from the terrorist strikes he took a secondary public role to Giuliani.
It would have been against his nature to elbow his way onto the mayor’s public platform, said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), a longtime ally who described Pataki’s style as “Let’s get the job done.”
A 6-foot-5 basketball and hiking enthusiast, Pataki grew up on his family’s farm in Peekskill, a small Hudson River town north of New York City’s suburbs. He earned degrees at Yale University and Columbia University Law School, practiced law and entered politics as an advance man in Nelson A. Rockefeller’s 1970 campaign for governor.
Pataki’s campaign track record is formidable. In the 23 years since he ran for mayor of Peekskill, he has never lost an election -- and has knocked off three incumbents on his climb to the top job in New York politics.
“There’s a string of bodies in the political graveyard put there by Pataki because they underestimated him,” said Sheinkopf, whose onetime client, former state Controller Carl McCall, lost the 2002 governor’s race to Pataki. “He’s not to be treated lightly.”
Pataki is best-known as the Republican who bounced Gov. Mario M. Cuomo from office in 1994. That campaign sparked a bitter rivalry between Pataki and Giuliani, who defied the party and endorsed the Democratic icon for reelection.
Overall, Pataki has been conservative on fiscal matters but liberal or moderate on social issues, supporting abortion rights and gun control. He cut taxes and restored New York’s death penalty, but also signed gay rights laws and made extensive state land purchases to protect open space from development.
“He’s clearly thinking beyond the governorship,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “He’s spending a lot of time and effort to show there’s another Republican in this state.”