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Joe Lhota presses on in waning days of NYC mayoral campaign

Joseph J. Lhota is receiving a wrist band

Joseph J. Lhota is receiving a wrist band from a volunteer while greeting trick-or-treaters at a Halloween Extravaganza at Bloomingdale Park, Staten Island. (Oct. 31, 2013) Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Republican Joe Lhota strode into Staten Island's Halloween Extravaganza at Bloomingdale Park with fistfuls of Gobstoppers and Tootsie Pops and Baby Ruths.

He didn't hand out palm cards or pamphlets or fliers. He barely asked for anyone's vote.

"You got no literature? Where's your literature?" Lhota endorser and borough president James Molinaro asked him.

These are the final days of Lhota's campaign for mayor. Rival Bill de Blasio has outraised him by millions. Every poll predicts de Blasio will trounce Lhota by about 40 points.

None of Lhota's strategies has halted de Blasio's momentum -- not highlighting the Democrat's past sympathizing with left-wing revolutions in Latin America, not warning that his rival would doom the city to its past of chaos and crime, not strong performances by Lhota in two of three debates, not playing up his government know-how as a top deputy to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"There's no plausible chance of him winning on Tuesday, but that has been very apparent for five or six weeks now," when the first polls forecast a landslide, said Tom Doherty, a GOP strategist and onetime top aide to former Gov. George Pataki.

De Blasio has stuck to a front-runner's play-it-safe strategy. In the past three weeks, his schedule has listed less than half as many public appearances and TV and radio interviews as during the primary campaign's homestretch. He typically takes media questions once a day, and then only a limited number.

"Given what the polls are like, he really doesn't want to change anybody's mind," said Kenneth Sherrill, a Hunter College professor emeritus of political science. "If people change their mind, it's not in his direction."

Lhota has been a regular on morning radio and TV, where he can reach a citywide audience. But on the stump, he has spent much of the past few weeks in conservative-leaning locales like Staten Island and in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, shoring up a base that doesn't come close to providing a foundation for victory in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1.

Asked for the rationale, he said he doesn't discuss strategy.

"There are friends here," Lhota said Thursday outside a kosher supermarket in Brooklyn's Borough Park.

The next day, Lhota's onetime boss and mentor, Giuliani, riveted a hushed crowd of retiree bingo players in Staten Island. But when Lhota's turn came to talk, many resumed chatter, forcing him to speak over murmurs.

Still, Lhota told Newsday, "I am feeling more and more confident every day -- every day."

That's the attitude underdogs must maintain, say veterans of losing races.

"When you wake up at night, you say to yourself, 'Oy vey, this is a problem,' " said Mark Green, the city's former public advocate, who has lost bids for mayor, congressman, U.S. senator and attorney general. "In between, you have to just do your tackling and blocking, and hope for the best and expect the worst. But never, never, never, can you convey to anyone other than maybe your spouse that you can't win."

To do so would be a morale-killer for campaign volunteers, staff and supporters, said Ruth Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president who lost the 1997 mayor's race to Giuliani.

"We kept trying and sometimes we were rewarded and sometimes we weren't, but that's life," she said.

It hasn't been easy for Lhota, whose staff has made a series of stumbles, including inviting female reporters into a synagogue where only men were welcome and using unauthorized, archived images in a commercial.

And at a campaign stop one Saturday morning last month in the Bronx's Co-op City, Lhota seemed palpably frustrated with his campaign's operations that day. He scolded his three or four volunteers not to block shoppers outside the doors to a Pathmark supermarket.

At Thursday's Halloween Extravaganza in Staten Island, Lhota stomped through a pumpkin patch, complimented costumed kids, shook hands with their parents and joked that a blowup Grim Reaper was "as tall as Bill." He played inflatable games, kicking a soccer ball and throwing a football.

"All right, that's enough," Lhota said after failing twice to kick the soccer ball into a goal. Moments later, he eyed the football game nearby.

"Should I embarrass myself again?" he deadpanned.

Lhota palmed the football. He threw a few times. All missed.

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