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Most of the commuters exiting the 34th Street subway stop last Monday morning treated Democrat Ruth Messinger with resolute indifference. But they weren't the demoralizing ones. They were those who felt bad for her, like George, a 33-year-old accountant. After pronouncing that incumbent Rudy Giuliani is rash and a bad listener, he strode over to Messinger and clasped her hand. "Not this time," he consoled, as the smile vanished from the candidate's face.

The press has derided this year's race for mayor of New York City as boring and meaningless. But in tiny, sad moments like those at the subway stop, one can see how remarkable an election it really is. Five years ago, Messinger was a pillar of the earnest liberal establishment that ran New York. Last Monday, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, she was a figure of deep marginality.

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1, Messinger is down as much as 28 points. A recent Daily News/Eyewitness News 7 poll shows her at 22% among Jews and 11% among white Catholics. She is losing the Hispanic vote. She has been deserted by the city's largest gay political organization, its biggest unions and all its major newspapers. Al Gore wouldn't campaign with her. She alienated Jews by embracing Al Sharpton, yet still lost the endorsement of two of New York's four black Congressmen. An aide to a longtime Democratic officeholder calls her campaign "a catastrophe." The 1997 race for mayor is to New York what the 1984 race for President was to the country at large. And Messinger is Walter Mondale--a thoughtful, well-meaning politician with the great misfortune of being liberalism's standard bearer as liberalism collapses.

Call it trickle-down politics. No one realized in 1984 that the Reagan Revolution would eventually seep down and destroy liberalism in its safest sanctuaries. But the Reagan deficits, and the critique of government spending they bolstered, led to a steep decline in federal aid to urban areas, from $64 per city resident in 1980 to $29 in 1993. The inability to spend money has reached America's big cities, and it has done to liberalism there what it did to national liberalism a decade ago. To survive, mayors have had to either find new sources of money or do things that didn't require an expenditure. Giuliani did the latter. The heart of his anticrime strategy was not more money but a shift in policing strategy. Following George Kelling and James Q. Wilson's now famous "broken windows" model, cops started arresting people for "life-style" offenses like public drunkenness. Giuliani's liberal predecessor David Dinkins couldn't use broken windows to evade the fiscal-austerity dilemma, because it required taking on minority-group leaders and civil libertarians who viewed these arrests as the harassment of African-American and Latino men. Giuliani did, and thereby won the hearts of outer-borough Democrats already hostile to Messinger's brand of upper-middle-class Manhattan liberalism. By making New Yorkers feel safer, he transformed the city's politics.

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