updated 2/23/2004 3:50:22 PM ET 2004-02-23T20:50:22

For all the talk of New York being a tough, gritty, tabloid-hungry political experience, the Democratic presidential primary has been a friendly place for front-runners in the last quarter-century.

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Trendsetting New Yorkers have followed the lead of other states and chose the favorite in a string of contests, a promising bit of history for Democrat John Kerry as he looks to the 10-state elections March 2 that include New York. Challenger John Edwards is determined to break the pattern.

“Wherever you go in the United States or the world, if you simply say ‘New York,’ they’re thinking about Manhattan,” said former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. “Not even 2 million people live in Manhattan. They miss everything from the Canadian border to Montauk Point ... When you look truly at New York, it’s a conservative state.”

Conservative as in sticking with the familiar Democratic front-runner. In 1988, Michael Dukakis dispatched Al Gore’s struggling campaign with a strong New York showing. Bill Clinton scored a more than double-digit victory over Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown in 1992. Gore made Bill Bradley an afterthought in the 2000 primary.

“New York’s reputation for brutality in (Democratic) presidential primaries is not accurate,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic political operative. “New York voters tend to confirm the national trend.”

Kerry has won 15 of 17
Kerry, winner of 15 of 17 primary contests and far ahead in the delegate chase, hopes to solidify his lead with a win in New York, which offers 236 delegates — second only to California’s top prize of 370 delegates.

The most recent New York poll showed Kerry with a commanding, 50-percentage points-plus lead over Edwards, winner of his birth state — South Carolina. But the North Carolina senator, a strong second-place finisher in Wisconsin’s Feb. 17 primary, has been focusing on upstate New York and hoping to make inroads with his populist, anti-trade argument in a region hard hit by job losses.

Edwards will start running two commercials Tuesday in upstate New York media markets, but he is avoiding the ultra-expensive New York City market, where a week of ads costs at least $1 million. The ads, previously run in other states, focus on manufacturing and jobs and claim that there are two Americas.

Edwards’ focus on upstate New York has a downside. Seventy percent or more of New York’s 5.1 million Democrats traditionally come from New York City and its suburbs, voters who are certain to set the tone on March 2.

“Upstate matches up well with Edwards, but to win a New York Democratic primary, you’ve got to go where all the voters are,” said independent pollster Lee Miringoff of Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion.

The recent Marist poll showed Edwards not doing any better in upstate than in any other part of the state.

Edwards, with long-shot candidates Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, also will have a chance to challenge Kerry on Sunday as the four candidates debate in New York City.

The open primary edge
One advantage Edwards enjoyed in Wisconsin was an open primary that attracted independents and Republicans who could vote in the Democratic contest. The primary in New York is for Democrats only.

“They ain’t going to be able to play those games here,” said Kerry’s New York campaign director, Paul Rivera.

Kerry has secured the backing of much of the Democratic establishment in the state, including state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Rep. Charles Rangel.

New York’s two U.S. senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, have remained neutral in the race. Cuomo said he will make an endorsement before the primary.

“Front-runners, by the time they get to New York, have piled up endorsements that are helpful in a primary,” Sheinkopf said. “Front-runners have the momentum, they have the unions — they have a turnout mechanism — and that’s why they tend to win.”

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