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George Pataki: Former Governor, Future President?

“He intends to run,” says lunch buddy Ed Koch. George Pataki is at it again, flirting with the national spotlight. Will the former New York governor finally consummate a presidential campaign?

12.02.10 10:37 PM ET

Watch cable television these days, and you’re likely to find George Pataki, the gangly former New York governor, filling up the screen. He’s in the middle of a familiar stage in the life of a party sachem who fancies himself a statesman. It’s presidential fantasy season for Republicans, where any man or woman with a heartbeat and a statehouse stop on the resume, suffers from White House fever dreams.

Two days before Thanksgiving, when a McClatchy poll showed the 65-year-old outpacing Republican hotshots like Tim Pawlenty and Haley Barbour (although all three far off the lead), Pataki was shuttling between New York television studios. With the Morning Joe gang, minus host Joe Scarborough who was serving his TV timeout, Pataki parried questions about Sarah Palin’s national viability.“I sound like Sarah Palin’s press agent,” he said with a grin.

Two hours later, Pataki was back under the lights, telling a Fox News host that Velma Hart, President Obama’s 15-second famous inquisitor, lost out on the American dream when she lost her job. “Your heart breaks for her,” Pataki said. Pataki’s return to the stage—or at least the emotive version now available in television studios—four years after finishing his third term in Albany has a few people scratching their heads. When radio host Don Imus was told Pataki would be joining him on air in October, the bad-tempered talker asked his producer, “I thought he was dead. Do you book people we thought were dead on?”

Doubting Pataki’s pulse has been standard practice for three decades, since he ran the mayor’s office in Peekskill, New York. Something about Pataki’s laconic disposition makes people think he’s Mr. Cellophane. And yet, Pataki worked his way atop New York’s political world with fury, starting by offing Governor Mario Cuomo when Pataki was a lowly first-term state senator from Westchester County.

“In every campaign that Pataki has been involved in, he’s been underestimated,” says Bill Powers, the former New York Republican party chair. “He is an ‘aw shucks’ guy, but in the meantime, he is ripping your balls out.”

Pataki’s newest campaign is to show that he just might be presidential timber. He made his most vocal show of interest in higher office earlier this month when he told ABC News, “What I'm going to be looking at is, do we have the right people out there who have that experience, who have experienced leadership, who have been challenged and who can bring people together….And make a decision on who else is out there, and whether or not they have those characteristics we need to be able to win this election and govern successfully.” 

“He is an ‘aw shucks’ guy, but in the meantime, he is ripping your balls out,” says a veteran New York Republican.

How serious are the considerations in Pataki Land?

They aren’t saying, but Pataki has a ready-made “aw shucks” response when pressed about running for president. “I ran two and half miles yesterday,” he told Mika Brzezinski last week. Those on the outside looking in say that Pataki’s ambitions are very real. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Pataki’s occasional lunch buddy at the Yale Club, says, “He really wants to be a candidate, and he intends to run.”

Powers, the former party chair, is slightly less emphatic.

“He has not shied away from it when we’ve talked,” he says.

Even if Pataki eventually balks on entering the presidential ring, he certainly acted like a wanna-be contender during the midterms. He blinked when it came to challenging New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a competition that many thought he would have won. Instead, the governor hitched up with an organization called Revere America, which produced attack ads targeting vulnerable Democrats who voted in favor of health care reform. Revere America sprinkled $2.6 million throughout the land. This isn’t Mitt Romney money, but it isn’t an inconsequential sum either. (At the outset, a Pataki aide said the group would raise $17.5 million.)

“It shows his ability to raise money, that he is not someone who has been left on the side of the road,” says Susan Del Percio, a New York Republican operative and veteran of the Giuliani administration.

Plus, the giving landed Pataki 101 IOUs from candidates throughout the country. More than half of Pataki’s millions were spent on just two campaigns: Pataki sent $1.5 million to New Hampshire, the all-important first primary state, where a northern Republican would have to win to have any hope of securing the national nomination. Spending dough in New Hampshire is a sure-fire way to show the locals you might want their vote and to get state officials on your side.

Pataki’s decision to focus on health care during the midterms was savvy, too. When he scans the horizon for potential rivals, it’s Mitt Romney who proves the most obvious and potentially unmovable obstacle. There’s likely room for only one former governor from the Northeast who has a foot in the party’s moderate wing—or in Pataki’s case, two feet. The biggest knock on Romney for the Republican electorate (one which the Obama White House is already using to its advantage) is the health-care plan he put in place in Massachusetts. It looks awfully similar to the one that was passed in Washington this year. By putting his weight into the health-care fight, Pataki has thrown a punch at his chief rival.

“How do you get past Mitt Romney if you want to be the Republican nominee? You attack Romney on health care and find a way to isolate him,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic strategist.

Romney isn’t the only person standing in President Pataki’s way. There’s that other former governor, Sarah Palin, whose strength as a possible candidate has become the new dividing line in the Republican Party. Pataki lit up the wires when he took the slightest poke at the Mama Grizzly, noting the town of Peekskill, where he first served as mayor, is “twice the size of Wasilla.” Pataki presents the perfect foil to Palin mania. He is staid; she is fierce. He sits at the front of the party’s elite educated class; she is none too trusting of those who collect Ivy League degrees like Pataki. And of course, Pataki served statewide office for 12 years, while Palin bailed in the middle of her first term. Pataki’s two-minute speech on the Republican future is peppered with the word, “ideas”—something which even fellow Republicans would admit is not Palin’s strong suit.

Pataki knows that hinting at Oval Office aspirations is a way to keep people interested and keep his coffers full. Newt Gingrich is perhaps the most skillful practitioner of this game. For those keeping score, the 2012 election cycle marks the third round of Pataki’s Hamlet act.

Ed Koch prefers another theatrical metaphor.

“It’s like waiting for Godot,” he says.

Back in 2000, boosters thought Pataki was just the right sidekick for Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Republican field’s frontrunner. Just elected to his second term as New York governor, Pataki had shown himself to be a heavyweight fundraiser and a top-flight political operative. Managing one of the country’s largest budgets and winning in a blue state established his bona fides. Bush, of course, chose another running mate, but as the 2008 campaign got going, Pataki surfaced once again. This time around, he was the September 11 governor, who along with Rudy Giuliani held New York steady after the terrorist attacks. Even today, few other Republican candidates could stump on national security issues like Pataki. Also working in Pataki’s favor: There’s no Republican candidate without a serious weakness, making this year open for a dark horse run.

But of course the stumbling blocks that stood in Pataki’s way in 2000 and 2008 haven’t disappeared. He’s pro-choice and pro-gun control, two positions that don’t fly in the South, where any Republican candidate must win to be viable. Rudy Giuliani gave a master’s class in 2008 on the pitfalls of a moderate Republican candidate from New York running nationwide. The advent of the Tea Party and the ascendency of the Jim DeMint wing of the GOP make for an even less-welcoming climate for Pataki than in years past. Even members of the New York Republican Party think Pataki went too far left in his final term in office.

After a decade of hanging at the outside of the presidential campaign circus—and not yet taking the plunge—doubt has become the default mood in state political circles when it comes to Pataki.

To run for president, says veteran operative Roger Stone, “It takes an extraordinary physical and intellectual energy level. I don’t think he has either. He is not intellectually curious, certainly not physically. You can’t stroll for president. You’ve got to run.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.