ALBANY, N.Y. — David Paterson thrived politically as a state senator, working his way up in a nearly all-white Albany political structure.
Now, he's governor, and things have never been worse.
For nearly a year, Paterson, the state's first black governor, has been battered by a faltering economy and with poll numbers hovering at record lows. This week, he learned President Barack Obama's administration is worried he'll drag other Democrats down in 2010 if he runs for a full term, perhaps even threatening the narrow margin the party needs to ward off filibusters in the U.S. Senate.
These days, Paterson finds himself very much alone.
Paterson said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama never directly asked him to step aside, and he wouldn't discuss what presidential aides may have told him confidentially. But the legally blind governor added he's heard the message from Democrats in New York and Washington: "I'm blind, I'm not oblivious."
"But I am running for governor," he said. "I don't think I am a drag on the party. I think I'm fighting for the priorities of my party."
At an Associated Press event in Syracuse last week, Paterson said that when he was Gov. Eliot Spitzer's lieutenant governor, he had never envisioned becoming the state's chief executive.
"I had this grand plan that Hillary Clinton was going to become president," he said. "Maybe the governor would appoint me to the Senate."
In January 2008, that was the plan. Paterson worked to draw black voters to Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. On TV screens and front pages, he was wedged next to President Bill Clinton and closer to the senator than Chelsea.
Democrats thought it was a well-deserved fit for Paterson as a reward for bringing the party close to controlling the state Senate for the first time in decades. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said Paterson was capable, highly intelligent and courageous. Paterson was the dashing statesman in an otherwise plodding Albany. He was smart, collegial, a reformer, ambitious and funny – on purpose.
Now, for many, he's a punch line.
Even Paterson is starting to talk about exit scenarios.
"I don't think anyone who is clearly hurting their party would take an action like running when it is going to make the party lose," he said. Then he added a shot: "I'm not sure those that are always calling for loyalty in the Democratic Party have been loyal themselves."
Albany's top two legislative Democrats – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Conference Leader John Sampson – last week committed to Paterson "right now" and "until otherwise known." Another Democratic pal, Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens, called Paterson "my governor, my friend, who has done a relatively good job."
For a sitting governor, that praise is a few shades shy of faint.
All of this comes days after Washington Democrats sent a clear message that Paterson should step aside for the popular Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. They are concerned that a weak top of the ticket could hurt other Democrats, including Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Paterson appointed to fill Clinton's Senate seat. A Paterson run could even entice Republican savior-in-waiting Rudy Giuliani to run for governor.
"He needs a game-changer," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College poll, which found Paterson had a 17 percent approval rating.
Many, however, say the game is over.
Last week's criticism and an apparent snub by Obama who gushed over Cuomo during a New York visit was embarrassing publicly for Paterson. Worse, it may be lethal financially, giving Democratic campaign contributors cover to cut checks to Cuomo and, with the apparent blessing of the nation's first black president, not worry about a backlash.
That will make Paterson's decision for him. It was the same force that made Cuomo exit the 2002 race for governor as money and support flowed to then-state Comptroller Carl McCall in his losing campaign to unseat Gov. George Pataki.
Without friends, a free flow of campaign cash and the contacts made from a previous campaign for governor, Paterson is mostly alone. Inheriting the job 18 months ago when Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution probe and governing through the worst fiscal crisis in state history left him saying "no" to powerful, well-funded special interests, while repeatedly committing his own political missteps, including the ugly process to replace Clinton with Gillibrand.
Paterson angered the Kennedy family when he didn't embrace Caroline Kennedy for the job and a Paterson operative later leaked unsubstantiated rumors about her in an attempt to show she was ill suited.
He is left with a message that is not much more than his character – which polls show New Yorkers like – and how he feels he kept the state from worse fiscal fates faced by other states.
So Paterson says he's "clearly running" even as Democrats urge him to reconsider.
"You don't give up because you have low poll numbers," he told "Meet the Press." "If everybody can tell what the future is, why didn't they tell me I'd be governor? I could have used the heads-up."
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