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NY race for "Sheriff of Wall Street" hard to call

By Karina Ioffee

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The campaign for New York state attorney general -- a job that includes being the "sheriff of Wall Street" -- is opening up now that the front-runner has been shaken by admissions of drug use and failing to vote.

Five Democrats and one Republican are vying for the job now held by Andrew Cuomo, who is running for governor. The primaries are scheduled for September 14.

The attorney general race has stirred little excitement across the state. A Quinnipiac University poll taken in late July found only 3 percent of Democrats could name any of their party's candidates and 81 percent said they did not know who they would choose.

The poll showed Kathleen Rice, a suburban district attorney, leading the Democratic field with 11 percent. She was followed by state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky with 5 percent, state Senator Eric Schneiderman with 4 percent, lawyer Sean Coffey with 3 percent and former assistant attorney general Eric Dinallo at 2 percent.

The poll's margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points put the bottom four in a statistical tie.

"In such a fragmented situation, the election is going to go to the best organized person, the one person who is best able to mobilize on the street," said Gerald Benjamin, dean of the political science department at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "But we just don't know who that is."

As top prosecutor in New York state, the attorney general battles crime on Wall Street, at the heart of the nation's financial industry. Eliot Spitzer, who was attorney general before being elected governor and resigning in a 2008 prostitution scandal, was dubbed "sheriff of Wall Street" for cracking down on white-collar crime. Cuomo has continued that with tough stands on securities fraud, insider trading and malfeasance.

Rice has raised $4.7 million for her campaign, nearly double that of any other candidate. She has presented herself as tough on crime by advocating that the state's controversial Rockefeller Laws, which impose heavy prison sentences on drug offenders, stay on the books.

But her enforcer image has been hit by recent revelations that she used cocaine in her 20s and did not vote until she was 38. She has apologized for both.

"If one of the opponents uses it against her, it might be a problem," said political consultant Jerry Skurnik. "But I'm not sure voters will care."

WALL STREET ENFORCER AND FRIEND

The vast majority of cases for the state attorney general involve consumer fraud and predatory lending and the Wall Street cases mark an extension of the job's traditional scope. Some critics say Spitzer and Cuomo overstepped their authority, alienating Wall Street and jeopardizing jobs and tax revenue.

Each candidate has promised to strike a balance between enforcer and friend. But some have markedly more experience on Wall Street, such as Coffey, who spent two decades as a private litigator, often on behalf of corporations.

Dinallo, who was an assistant attorney general under Spitzer, has experience as an insurance superintendent and has raised $2.6 million, much of it from Wall Street.

But Coffey, a former Navy captain, is seen as an outsider and Dinallo has not done well in debates. The man to watch, say some, is Schneiderman, who many believe can find strength in the black and Latino voters in his district.

Schneiderman also has the backing of the state's largest union, Service Employees International Union, and has raised $2.5 million. Like Rice, he is campaigning on a promise of ethics reform in the state capital and campaign finance.

Brodsky also is an outsider, a career politician with no Wall Street experience. He has raised just $389,000 and proposes reforms of several public agencies.

The lone Republican running for attorney general is Daniel Donovan, a district attorney for the New York City borough of Staten Island.

The contest will hinge on who can make the most of the final few weeks of the campaign, spending on direct mail and television ads, said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in New York. "The result will be determined by who can do the most effective and extensive advertising campaign or if they make some sort of mistake," he said.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Trott)

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