By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota has served as the city's budget director and deputy mayor, led the mass-transit agency's aggressive response to superstorm Sandy and boasts a wife who is a prodigious Republican fundraiser.
But despite his impressive resume, polls show Lhota trailing Democrat Bill de Blasio, an unapologetic liberal, by 23 percent to 68 percent in the November 5 race to follow Mayor Michael Bloomberg into City Hall.
Lhota's chances for election have been hampered as much by the city's appetite for a liberal after two decades of Republican and independent leadership as by weaknesses of his campaign. He comes across as shy, with a disconcerting habit of closing his eyes when he speaks, political watchers say.
No single issue defines Lhota's mayoral bid. His attacks on de Blasio, who has centered his campaign on addressing the gap between the city's rich and poor, have failed to stick, and Lhota struggles to connect with voters.
"Joe knows government. He knows how to get things done in government. But he doesn't know how to run a race. He's not a practiced politician," said George Arzt, a press secretary for three-term Mayor Ed Koch. "I don't know that in nine words you could describe him."
Lhota has struggled to translate his extensive management experience into a compelling argument for why he should be mayor, says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University who has advised Bloomberg.
"There is a long tradition of people who have successfully built careers of government but have learned that running for office is very different from holding appointed office," said Moss. "His great skills are on his resume, not in discussing crime and public safety."
Lhota's mentor, Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001, lost his first bid in 1989 and then emerged four years later as a more seasoned candidate, said Moss.
"TALKING ABOUT THE PAST"
At a recent event in East Flatbush, Lhota raised the specter of a spike in crime if de Blasio should win City Hall.
Despite the apt theme, the weaknesses of Lhota's campaign were plain to see. Not one resident from the high-crime neighborhood stood at the candidate's side to endorse his position. At one point he paused mid-sentence so his press aide could remind him how many days were left until Election Day.
"I will continue to get my message out there, every single day, and do whatever I can to minimize my sleep and campaign for as many hours of the day as I possibly can," Lhota said.
But when a reporter asked if Lhota, a Harvard-trained bureaucrat, was disappointed his campaign had not been better managed, he retorted that the question was not "legitimate."
A Siena College poll released on Monday gave de Blasio a 45-point lead over Lhota among likely voters. The spread has remained consistent since September, when both men won their respective primary races.
"Would a perfect campaign by Lhota coming out of primary day have made a difference? Certainly. Would it have made enough of a difference? Given the margin we're looking at right now, I would say, probably not," said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg. "It would take something of incredibly unique proportions to change the dynamic of this race."
As a candidate, Lhota has fiercely defended the Bloomberg-era policing practice of stop and frisk, saying the city should do a better job explaining its tactics to a skeptical public. He has also embraced some of de Blasio's proposals, including a plan to expand access to pre-kindergarten, but he opposes paying for it with a tax hike on the city's wealthiest earners.
He pledges to ensure better coordination between agencies in the event of another major storm and hold monthly town hall meetings across the city to address local concerns.
De Blasio, who leapt from fourth place to first ahead of the Democratic primary in part thanks to an television spot that touted his biracial family, has appeared to better capture the zeitgeist of the city, where Democrats hold a six-to-one registration advantage over Republicans.
A former city councilman and the city's public advocate for the last four years, De Blasio has campaigned on the promise of addressing the gap between the city's rich and poor.
In contrast to de Blasio, whose wife and teenage son and daughter frequently accompany him on the campaign trail, Lhota's wife, Tamra, a Giuliani fundraiser, is rarely seen at her husband's side.
Giuliani, a polarizing figure 12 years after leaving City Hall, has not been a frequent presence at Lhota events.
"This race is about the future," Lhota told reporters when asked if his ex-boss would join him in the final week. "I'm getting sick and tired of talking about the past."
(Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Gunna Dickson)