Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, on track to become the next Democratic caucus leader, insists his decision to vote against the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran came from reviewing the merits.

Of course he is going to say that.

But it is extremely difficult to believe the state's 64-year-old senior senator, as a conventional politician, never gave a moment's prior thought to the fact that he's also looking to win a fourth six-year term next year in an undercard to the presidential race.

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Nor is it likely to be lost on Schumer that a well-funded electoral threat -- should one ever materialize against him -- would seem more likely to come from Republicans than from alienated Democrats.

Just maybe, Schumer's defying the White House -- and gravitating toward the mainstream GOP position on the Iran deal -- cushions him against a potential general-election issue.

State Republican Chairman Ed Cox did his best with the news by demanding Schumer make a more aggressive effort to get the pact defeated. Schumer has indicated he wouldn't try to push colleagues to vote against it.

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"By saying this vote is a matter of 'conscience,' " Cox wrote, "Senator Schumer is sending an inside-the-beltway dog-whistle to his fellow politicians that this is a matter of subjective beliefs."

Cox pointed to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand -- who's ready to vote for the deal -- as one who needs to be talked out of a pact that "poses an existential threat to Israel and risks American security." But unlike Schumer, Gillibrand wouldn't face re-election until 2018.

Defying Obama can't be as risky as it once was for a Democrat in Washington. The president has only a year and a half left, and his approval ratings show a good deal of second-term fatigue.

Also, Schumer's links with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and his cordiality with that nation's right-leaning premier Benjamin Netanyahu -- who was invited to criticize the White House from the GOP-controlled floor of Congress -- are well-established.

One well-known liberal Democrat said Thursday of the Iran vote: "People like me resent this. It knocks him down a peg. By doing this he does not look like a big Democratic leader, just a pandering pol. He's given more credibility to the Bolton-Cheney crowd."


As for next year's election, the Democrat said, "The likelihood is that right-wing independent expenditures against him would be greater than left-wing independent expenditures against him."

That said, the progressive Moveon.org expressed outrage that Schumer "will try to put the nation on a path to war," proclaiming: "No real Democratic leader does this."

In New York, a primary challenge from Schumer's left is always possible. But past efforts of this kind, to foul the Senate ambitions of Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand, made barely a ripple.

For his part, Schumer calls it all a matter of national and international caution and security.

"To me, the very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great," he wrote earlier this month. "Therefore, I will vote to disapprove the agreement, not because I believe war is a viable or desirable option, nor to challenge the path of diplomacy. It is because I believe Iran will not change."

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And he insisted -- naturally -- that his was "a decision solely based on the merits."