By Dick Morris on September 17, 2010

Published in the New York Post on September 16, 2010

Had Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand used her incumbency to good advantage, her victory this fall in the heavily Democratic state of New York would be a foregone conclusion. Instead, she squandered her opportunity — remaining passive and on the sidelines while the Republicans fought for the right to oppose her.

The rules are different for appointed senators, like Gillibrand, than for incumbents who’ve won election to the job: They have yet to make that crucial first sale with the voters.

Indeed, they have yet to do most of the groundwork that leads to that sale — like having voters know who you are.

Gillibrand remains largely unknown to her constituents. She should have used this spring and summer to tell New Yorkers who she is and what are her plans in the Senate. Instead, she hoarded her funds and chose to say and do nothing.

So there is no true incumbent, just Gillibrand and GOP nominee Joseph DioGuardi competing for a vacancy.

DioGuardi brings real strengths to that competition — while Gillibrand has weaknesses. For starters, she’s reinvented herself again and again over the last two decades.

It started long before the flip-flops she announced in her first months in the Senate. The “delete” button on her computer must have worn thin as she has erased large segments of her past.

She now describes her self as having been a “public interest lawyer” in the 1990s. In fact, she represented Philip Morris — assisting its CEO in covering up evidence that he knew of tobacco’s addictive properties and that it caused cancer. Her job was to keep the company research records — which proved beyond a doubt that corporate execs knew the addictive qualities of tobacco — beyond the reach of American courts.

For years, she hid that role from her constituents. Then, when The New York Times printed the facts, she claimed that she had no choice but to represent tobacco since she was only an associate at her firm. In fact, the firm’s policy was to let associates opt out of any case that offended their moral compass — and she definitely didn’t opt out.

In 1999, she became counsel to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Her job was to promote “new products” for the agency — subprime mortgages for people who couldn’t afford them. But once the mortgage meltdown began, she hit the “delete” key again — expunging the item from her resume.

She also faces the problem that she profited from the crisis: Once the financial meltdown started, she and her husband shorted firms like Countrywide that specialized in subprime mortgages.

Bottom line: New Yorkers don’t yet really know Gillibrand as “their” senator — and they ought to know her as a chameleon who’s shown no principle in her pursuit of profit.

Polls show her only barely above 50 percent before the Republican primary. Now, she is probably under 50 percent.

Joe DioGuardi, a committed conservative with a fine record in Congress, offers an alternative that voters will find attractive. He’s hampered by limited name recognition, likely still in the mid 30s.

But once an incumbent is under 50 percent, she is very vulnerable, particularly with Gillibrand’s record of support for every Obama big-spending scheme. And she stands for nothing in a year when voters are looking for sincerity.

If the national party and its New York adherents give DioGuardi the money he deserves, he has a real shot.

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