HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Weeks after becoming the state's first black governor, David Paterson made a triumphant return to his childhood alma mater, Hempstead High School.
The Class of '71 alum, also the first legally blind person to hold the office, was cheered by more than 1,000 teachers, students and local dignitaries at the May 2008 rally.
His ascension after former Gov. Eliot Spitzer quit amid a sex scandal and his remarkable life story inspired constituents; his popularity peaked later that summer as he warned of an impending budget crisis.
Less than two years later, Paterson's ratings are in the cellar, polls show a fellow Democrat would swamp him in a primary and lately he's had to deny unsubstantiated whispers about his personal life. On Friday his aides denounced a lengthy New York Times profile that portrayed him as distracted and disengaged, relying on longtime friends over political advisers for advice.
Still, as he returns to his childhood hometown Saturday to announce plans to seek a full four-year term, some folks in Hempstead, in Long Island's Nassau County, say they're willing to give the "accidental governor" a second look.
"I think that he's trying to do things, but he's not getting help from the Legislature," Jerard Armstrong said this week outside the Hempstead Public Library. "He's trying to become more assertive now. If you really look at it, where can you see the poor performance? He's not getting any cooperation."
Paterson kicks off a two-day statewide tour with a formal announcement Saturday morning at Hofstra University, where he attended law school. He has an appearance in Rochester later Saturday and a rally Sunday in Western New York. He also plans a rally in Manhattan next weekend.
Paterson will become the only declared Democratic candidate in the November race for governor, although politicos from Buffalo to Bay Shore anticipate Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will challenge him in the Democratic primary. Leaked reports last September said President Barack Obama was among those who have pressured Paterson to step aside in the name of party unity.
Republican Rick Lazio, the former Long Island congressman, announced his candidacy in September and has pressed Cuomo in recent weeks to make a decision.
State Democratic Party chief Jay Jacobs said a primary seemed probable.
"At the moment, it's looking likelier and likelier," he said, "but I am hopeful that we'll be able to avoid it."
He didn't indicate how the party might dodge a Paterson-Cuomo contest.
Tim Mulhearn said outside the Hempstead post office that he would back Paterson in a head-to-head contest.
"I know his ratings are low, but I think he's trying to do a good job," Mulhearn said. "(Paterson's) getting beaten up by everybody, and I think the people who are supposed to be on his side should cut him some slack."
Cuomo's spokesmen have repeatedly said he's focusing on his job as attorney general, although the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo has held large fundraisers and has collected more than $16 million compared to Paterson's $3 million.
LeRoy Green said he thinks Paterson needs to rally.
"He went into this office under scrutiny, after some mishaps from our previous governor, and he's trying to fill his shoes," Green said. "It takes a little time. I'm willing to give him a little time and a chance to prove himself."
Paterson, 55, has said in interviews that his parents moved his family from Brooklyn to Hempstead when he was 4 because New York City public schools wouldn't allow a legally blind student in regular classes.
He never learned Braille, part of his intense desire to deal directly with the sighted world, but memorizes his speeches. Aides read important documents to him first thing in the morning, sometimes over what he and his staff jokingly call the bat phone.
"My mother didn't want me to go to school for the blind or special education," Paterson, a runner and pick-up basketball player, has told reporters.
Lawrence Levy, the head of Hofstra University's National Center on Suburban Studies and a longtime observer of Long Island politics, said Paterson has no choice but to run for governor, despite the popularity and fiscal prowess of Cuomo.
"If he didn't get out front with this announcement, he would be a lame duck governor and have even less leverage than he has as a weak governor negotiating one of the toughest state budgets ever," Levy said. "And who wants to be seen as having been frightened off the stage by Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama?"
Associated Press writer Michael Gormley in Albany contributed to this report.