THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Paterson Learn From The Secret Race to Replace Jon Corzine?

The White House wants David Paterson out of the running for New York's 2010 gubernatorial election. Paterson hopes they'll reconsider.

Because hey -- it worked for Jon Corzine.

In early August, David Axelrod and Patrick Gaspard met at a New York City hotel with Corzine's campaign staffers, asking whether or not the incumbent governor could actually win. Corzine's people assured them that he could. Obama's pollster became a top level adviser and it was settled. Corzine would remain the nominee.

This is patty-cake compared to what the White House did to Governor Paterson -- planting a story on the front page of a Sunday edition of the New York Times saying they wanted him gone.

Or so you would think.

On Wednesday, New Jersey's former acting Governor (and current Senate President) Dick Codey revealed that the Obama administration was pushing a lot harder than previously reported to remove Corzine from the ticket.

A week after Vice President Biden nearly boycotted Corzine's primary night rally on June 2, Codey received a call from Gaspard, the White House political director, to talk about the direction of the campaign. The calls continued into July. Corzine was polling badly, whereas Congressman Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were looking viable. The White House was cautious, but concerned. President Obama even came into the state to rally at the governor's side. And then, the widespread corruption busts of July 23 brought the West Wing's faith in Corzine to a new low. Gaspard asked Codey point-blank if he would get into the race if Corzine dropped out. Codey said yes, but also that he would have to tell Corzine of their conversation out of courtesy, and ultimately defer to the governor's decision.

Thus, the early August meeting. Codey never heard back from the White House.

This ought to give David Paterson heart. The White House tested the waters and backed off -- and like him, Corzine was really unpopular. If only Paterson could rebuild his image (cue: television ads), reinforce his political strength (cue: Harold Ickes) and maybe get some things done (cue: special session of the legislature), he can reverse his yearlong slide into electoral oblivion.

Unfortunately for Paterson, he has disadvantages that Corzine did not: a contested primary next September and powerful leaders opposed to his renomination.

Corzine was weak this spring, but failed to draw a viable challenger in the June primary. This could be because Rep. Rob Andrews received such a thorough drumming for challenging Senator Frank Lautenberg in 2008. Andrews' support came from South Jersey, whose top boss George Norcross realized his power is more potent in the backroom than in the voting booth. According to WNBC's Brian Thompson, Norcross waited until after the primary was over to mount a 'Replace Corzine' campaign, touting Pallone or Booker as the stand-in.

But his candidates might not have been ready to step up. Pallone, who turned down the chance to replace Bob Torricelli on the ticket in 2002, couldn't leave Washington this summer -- not as chairman of the Health Subcommittee. And Cory Booker probably didn't want to mar a bright political future with a backroom deal, only to run in a lousy economic environment.

This left Codey, which Norcross could not have liked. The two are known to feud (in the months since, Norcross appears to have deposed Codey from his Senate leadership position). So, major backing for the 'Replace Corzine' movement folded. Without that, the White House had no other choice but to support the incumbent.

To be fair, Corzine's campaign wasn't just spinning plates -- there was a good strategy and a real shot at winning. The race broke the other way, that's all. Paterson needs to put forward a plan to win, but that's not all he needs. New York Democrats and the White House will not pass up on a surefire winner like Andrew Cuomo for a questionable candidate. Rehabilitated or not, there's simply no way for Paterson to survive with Cuomo in the race.

Paterson might as well work to restore his image: he's still got more than a year left in office and the opportunity to accomplish some things. But if Corzine's example can teach him anything, it's that he's kidding himself if he thinks he'll be the Democratic nominee in 2010.