That championship season: George Pataki is still trying to run for president on the strength of 17-year-old upset win

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George Pataki. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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George Pataki badly wants to be treated as a serious White House prospect. He's essentially been running his own "Draft Pataki" effort, encouraging the stories that regularly pop up about his potentially imminent entry into the 2012 presidential race.

But the news consistently fails to excite anyone without the Pataki surname. For two years he's been at this, and still no one is even nibbling.

Pataki, who was governor of New York for three terms, isn't wrong to perceive an opening on the G.O.P. side. The Republican field is thin and bottom-heavy, littered with niche candidates who have no realistic chance of corralling the opinion-shaping party elites who ultimately govern the nominating process. For all intents and purposes, the race is between three men right now: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry. Is there room for someone else? Sure. And with the economy apparently losing steam, Barack Obama is looking increasingly vulnerable, making next year's G.O.P. nomination that much more attractive.

What's interesting is how closely these dynamics resemble those that defined New York's political landscape in the early '90s, when Pataki defied his own obscurity to seize on a similar vacuum in the state G.O.P., claiming the party's gubernatorial nomination and then dethroning Mario Cuomo in the fall.

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Maybe this is the inspiration for his White House posturing today. Maybe his thinking is that if he knew how to do it in 1994, there’s nothing to say he couldn’t pull it off again in 2012.

The problem with that logic is that Pataki wasn’t ever really the one who was responsible for that career-defining '94 triumph. Someone did it for him.

The story of Pataki's rise really begins in 1990, a year that most self-respecting New York Republicans have probably trained themselves to forget.

Cuomo, a national political star since his show-stealing performance at the 1984 Democratic convention, was vulnerable as he set out to seek a third term. Voter fatigue, exacerbated by a budget crisis that Cuomo ultimately solved with tax and fee hikes, was becoming an issue and his approval rating was quickly falling to earth.

But the state Republican Party did nothing but swing and miss—19 times, by one count—in its quest to find a candidate. Jack Kemp, Henry Kissinger, Rudy Giuliani and Sol Wachtler all said "no," and so did a host of lesser-known figures.

Part of the problem was the party's leadership. J. Patrick Barrett, a wealthy former Avis chairman, had taken over as state chairman in 1989, and hopes had been high. Barrett had raised big money for George H.W. Bush's victorious presidential campaign in 1988 and promised to rejuvenate a state G.O.P. that had suffered through a miserable statewide campaign in 1986. But after a year on the job, the party was still swimming in red ink, and it was far from clear whether the Bush White House would be willing to steer big money to the race. (Cuomo was a potential Bush challenger for 1992, and the Bush team feared how it would look if they went after him and lost.)

This is how Republicans ended up with one of the most self-destructive major-party nominees for statewide office in New York history: Pierre Rinfret, who quickly derided the Republicans who had passed on the race as "gutless wonders," and branded Cuomo "chicken" for not serving in Korea.

It turned out Rinfret wasn't even a registered Republican (a special exemption had to be made before the state G.O.P. endorsed him at its convention) and that the he lacked the doctorate that he claimed to have had. His campaign manager and finance chairman both ended up quitting and Rinfret even publicly threatened to stop campaigning at one point.

The result was nearly catastrophic for the Republican Party. With polls showing Rinfret slipping behind Herbert London—the nominee of the Conservative Party, which had refused to back the pro-choice Rinfret—it was left to the lavishly funded Nassau County G.O.P. machine and Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino's campaign committee to organize a last-minute drive that pushed Rinfret back into second place on Election Day, just 37,000 votes ahead of London. Had Rinfret finished third, the G.O.P. would have lost its prominent statewide ballot position. As it was, his 23 percent of the vote marked the worst showing ever for a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Cuomo only received 53 percent, but it looked like a landslide.

This trainwreck was instrumental in Pataki's eventual climb to power, even if it was impossible to see at the time.

The 1990 election convinced Republicans to push Barrett out and to look for a new chairman. Al D'Amato pushed for one of his former aides, Bill Powers. So did the Nassau machine that had produced D'Amato (and that was now stronger and better-funded than the state Republican Party). That pretty much settled things. D'Amato, of course, was looking out for himself. His Senate seat was up in 1992 and an ethics investigation was chipping away at his poll numbers. There were rumors that Giuliani—fresh off his near-miss 1989 mayoral campaign—might challenge him in a primary, or that someone else would. With a loyal chairman in place, D'Amato effectively fortified himself against an intraparty threat.

Even still, he faced long odds. By '92, his ethics problem had only worsened. It took a series of unbelievable breaks—a brutally divisive Democratic primary that deeply divided the party and a mid-October meltdown by Democratic nominee Robert Abrams—to rescue D'Amato. But as a reelected senator with a former aide running the state party, D'Amato emerged from his near-death experience as the most powerful Republican in New York State, just as the next major statewide contest began taking shape.

By 1993, it was clear that Cuomo would be supremely vulnerable if he sought a fourth term the next year. More budget crises and a prolonged economic slump had sunk his approval rating to the low 40s. Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton offered Cuomo a graceful way out, but Cuomo refused a chance to sit on the Supreme Court. He was running for governor again. Now all the Republicans needed was a candidate.

D'Amato claimed he was interested, announcing that it was "50/50, at least" that he'd make a run. But he was bluffing. There were hefty bills left over from '92, and flirting with a campaign against Cuomo was a good way to pay them. When he ended the charade in the fall of '93, the G.O.P. found itself exactly where it had been the last time around. The biggest names in the party were either uninterested in running against Cuomo, or unable to do so. Giuliani was on his way to winning the mayoralty, Wachtler was in prison, and Ed Regan—the long-serving state comptroller and one the G.O.P.'s most durable vote-getters—decided to resign his office and leave politics altogether. Some Republicans wishfully talked up Colin Powell, a New York native who stepped down as Joint Chiefs chairman in September '93, but that was a nonstarter.

Without any big names in the mix, a decidedly B-list field began taking shape. Richard Rosenbaum, who'd been the state chairman back in the Rockefeller days, jumped in. So did Evan Galbraith, an ardent right-winger and former ambassador to France. Bill Green, the liberal congressman who'd been upset by Carolyn Maloney in 1992, showed interest. And Herb London decided to run again, too. None of the names in circulation had the obvious potential to unify the party and gain the Conservative line, much less defeat Cuomo in the fall. In other words, there was an opening for someone else.

This is where Pataki comes in.