Why Al D'amato, The Bankers' Pal, Could Make A Comeback

For years, he's been known in New York as Senator Pothole. But now Republican Alfonse M. D'Amato has a new moniker: the Scourge of Switzerland. The feisty Long Island pol has won rave reviews for hectoring secretive Swiss banks to open their books and return millions deposited by Holocaust victims. The feat may transform the Senate Banking Committee chairman from a likely election loser in 1998 to an endangered but viable candidate.

Once the Senate's least popular member with constituents, D'Amato has seen his approval rating rise 12 points in a year, to a still mediocre 37%, according to a Feb. 1-4 survey by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. "He's improving, but he still has problems," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.

D'Amato's uphill climb is being watched closely by business nationally. If he loses, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) is his probable successor as banking boss. Lobbyists see D'Amato as more sympathetic to the views of large banks, securities firms, and major insurers--many based in New York--while Gramm comes from a state with a long tradition of community banking.

BARE KNUCKLES. D'Amato is doing his best to make sure Gramm doesn't grab the chairman's gavel. GOP strategists hope to soften D'Amato's bare-knuckles image--except for his attacks on the Swiss banks. They win plaudits from Jewish voters, who make up about 10% of the New York electorate. "He has shown leadership, courage, and stamina on the issue," gushes David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

To close his yawning gender gap, D'Amato is emphasizing his longtime commitment to women's health issues, including sponsorship of greater breast cancer research and opposition to "drive-through" mastectomies. He reminds environmentally conscious suburbanites of his work for a 1996 New York bond issue to clean up Long Island Sound, protect drinking-water sources, and modernize sewage treatment. And he hopes to burnish his image as a battler for the little guy by crusading against automatic teller machine surcharges.

Detractors question the sincerity of D'Amato's crusades, suggesting that he is motivated more by reelection than commitment to the issues. Responds D'Amato: "It's ridiculous. If I ran into a burning building to save somebody, they'd say I did it to help my polls."

Whatever his motivation, D'Amato has skillfully used his prominent role to rake in campaign cash. On Feb. 11, he introduced a financial-modernization bill that would let banks, insurers, and securities firms compete directly. Says a bank lobbyist: "This is a marvelous campaign issue that will allow him to systematically milk all segments of the financial-services industry for the life of this Congress." In 1995-96, finance, insurance, and real estate PACs gave him $522,388--although he wasn't on the ballot.

While the New York-based financial industry does not constitute a major bloc of votes, its campaign contributions ultimately could be as critical in restoring D'Amato's political health as his Swiss bank coup. He has more than $6.8 million in cash--tops in the Senate. What's more, D'Amato is a relentless campaigner and skilled political street-fighter who is expected to use his expected financial edge to trash opponents. He may also be aided by potential fratricide in the Democratic primary.

D'Amato has been written off by the political establishment before. But he's never been beaten. "Don't eat your meal until it's served," he warns hungry Democrats. Still, the scrappy senator will have to work harder than ever to make sure that in '98, he's not the one eating crow.

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