Democratic freshman Sen. Kristin Gillibrand is one of her party's most vulnerable incumbents, but New York Republicans can't come up with a political heavyweight to knock her on the ropes, and her campaign gains momentum with each passing day.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki took a pass on the race, leaving a hodgepodge of relatively obscure Republican candidates vying for the seat held by Mrs. Gillibrand, a relative unknown herself just a year ago who nevertheless also faces scant competition so far in the September primary.
Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York, said nobody ever has an election lock because of the state's volatile political landscape. But Mrs. Gillibrand's prospects of holding onto the Senate seat she won by appointment this year improved markedly when "America's mayor" announced he would stay on the sidelines.
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Her prospects "were looking reasonably good to begin with. I don't think she has a serious opponent," Mr. Sherrill said. "The New York State Republican Party has no bench."
Still, she has never run statewide, and next year she likely faces strong anti-incumbent winds, an election cycle that historically hurts the party in power and potential voter antipathy toward Democrats if the economy does not improve.
Mrs. Gillibrand trailed Mr. Giuliani by double digits, 50 percent to 40 percent, in a mid-December poll by Quinnipiac University.
The Republican candidates to enter the race so far are former state Sen. Michael Balboni of Long Island, former Nassau County legislator Bruce A. Blakeman and Larchmont Mayor Elizabeth N. Feld.
The only Democrat challenging Mrs. Gillibrand is Jonathan Tasini, who ran in 2006 as an antiwar alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton when she held the Senate seat. Mr. Tasini, a labor activist, is taking a similar tack against Mrs. Gillibrand, hitting her for supporting a health reform bill that does not tilt far enough to the left.
Another Democrat, New York City Comptroller William Thompson, has not decided whether he will enter the race. Mr. Thompson, who last month lost the mayor's race to incumbent Michael Bloomberg, led Mrs. Gillibrand 41 percent to 28 percent in the Quinnipiac University survey.
The poll underscores the weakness Mrs. Gillibrand has with the state's Democratic epicenter in New York City.
She rose from relative obscurity as a House member from upstate when she was appointed in January to fill the Senate seat Mrs. Clinton had vacated to become secretary of state. The appointment by Gov. David A. Paterson raised eyebrows, as many had assumed there would be a high-profile or celebrity pick and Mrs. Gillibrand had just won a second House term.
The appointment temporarily filled the seat until the special election in November to complete the final two years of Mrs. Clinton's term.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Gillibrand spent the past year laboring in the role of senator and visiting each of New York's 62 counties while amassing a more than $5.5 million war chest and sturdy support from the Democratic establishment.
Mrs. Gillibrand has steadfast backing from fellow New York lawmaker Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a member of the chamber's Democratic leadership, and from President Obama, who has helped clear the field of some potential primary rivals, including Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney and Steve Israel.
"There were a lot of people who were one-time critics of her who are now supporters," said Gillibrand campaign spokesman Matt Canter, citing the turnaround by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy as an example.
Mrs. McCarthy, New York Democrat, vowed to defeat Mrs. Gillibrand immediately following the appointment but recently had a change of heart. She not only declined to enter the race but also teamed up with Mrs. Gillibrand to introduce a bill that would crack down on illegal gun trafficking.
That bill, which would add 1,500 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to monitor gun dealers, also illustrates Mrs. Gillibrand's transformation from an upstate politician to a more traditional New York Democrat, from a darling of the National Rifle Association to an ally of the gun-control lobby.
In the Senate, she also has grabbed national headlines fighting against restrictions on abortion funding in the Democrat's health care bill, spearheaded a tax credit for businesses that create new jobs and played a leading role on nutrition and food safety issues.
When Mrs. Gillibrand joined all her fellow Senate Democrats in passing historic health care legislation on Christmas Eve, she applauded the bill but cautioned that it needs improvement during reconciliation with the House version. She said the bill lacked the government-run health insurance option included in the house bill and she would fight to put it in the final package.
"New Yorkers understand that they have two fierce advocates in the U.S. Senate right now," said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "People are beginning to realize that she's not only a strong senator but a formidable opponent. … It is not surprising that candidates are taking a pass."