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Weld's comeback dreams dashed

He quits campaign for N.Y. governor

William F. Weld, who once charmed Massachusetts voters with insouciance, tax cuts, and a fondness for sipping whiskey, pulled the plug yesterday on his quixotic campaign for governor of his native New York.

It was a crashing conclusion to his political comeback, 10 years and a few career changes removed from the heady days when Weld, then Republican governor of Massachusetts, was positioning himself to run for president.

When he entered the New York race last year, Weld, now 60, was considered the front-runner to become the GOP's candidate -- but a long shot against Democrat Eliot Spitzer , the hard-charging attorney general and scourge of crooked self-dealers on Wall Street.

But Weld's candidacy never gained traction. He had grown up on Long Island and maintained a vacation retreat in the Adirondacks, so the carpetbagger-from-Massachusetts tag never fully stuck. But he couldn't shake devastating news accounts about his involvement, as a private equity investor and then as chief executive, in a Kentucky trade school that was under investigation for possible fraud in connection with federal student loans. His performance on the stump drew mixed notices, and he seemed unable to negotiate the thicket of GOP politics in New York.

On Thursday, Weld lost the Republican convention endorsement to former assembly minority leader John Faso; he'd also lost the Conservative Party endorsement to Faso. On Monday, the chairman of the state GOP called on Weld to pull out of the race, part of a growing chorus urging his withdrawal.

``I do think there's a time to look beyond your aspirations for the bigger picture," Weld said yesterday at a news conference at his headquarters in Manhattan. ``This is not a time for a contested primary."

Even his friends predicted yesterday that Weld's decision probably marked the end of his political career, though he remains an unpredictable figure. His immediate plans were unclear. Yesterday, allies in Massachusetts and analysts in New York were calling Weld the wrong candidate at the wrong time.

``He just never fit," said Hank Sheinkopf , a Democratic consultant in New York.

``The core of the Republican Party in New York is still conservative, it's still largely upstate, and they just couldn't countenance somebody they didn't know," Sheinkopf said. Weld was a social moderate who favored abortion rights. He backpedaled from his prior supportive comments about same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

Unlike in Massachusetts, the GOP in New York has a powerful infrastructure in its 62 counties. The party, however, fears a blowout in November, when Senator Hillary Clinton will top the Democratic ticket, with Spitzer, who is expected to defeat his primary challenger.

Explaining Weld's situation, John Zogby , an independent pollster based in Utica, N.Y., said Weld's ``coming back in this incarnation seemed to be a stroke of genius at the time." But he never meshed with the party regulars. ``He got chewed up and spit out by some pretty rough people," Zogby said. In particular, Zogby said, Weld was hurt by a long-running feud with former senator Alfonse M. D'Amato , a Republican who reportedly blames Weld, a former federal prosecutor, for the 1993 conviction of the senator's brother on a mail fraud charge that was later overturned.

Weld had the support of the state's most prominent Republicans, but it was largely behind the scenes. Outgoing three-term Governor George E. Pataki and Rudolph W. Giuliani , the former mayor of New York, had both urged Weld to run, but never publicly endorsed him. Also failing to materialize was hoped-for support from current Mayor Michael Bloomberg , the other member of the GOP's ``big three" in the Empire State.

``There was always good news that was supposed to be around the corner, but it never happened," said Rob Gray , a Boston-based consultant who worked on the current campaign and Weld's unsuccessful 1996 challenge of Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. ``That being said, all of us, including Bill, think he would have won the primary if he stayed in."

Weld partisans imagined a reprise of his dramatic comeback in 1990, the first of two victorious campaigns for governor of Massachusetts. After losing the party's endorsement to legislative leader Steven D. Pierce , Weld was pressured by party leaders to drop out for the sake of Republican unity. He refused, whipped Pierce in the primary, edged Democrat John R. Silber in the election, and four years later won reelection by the largest margin in state history in a lopsidedly Democratic state.

``He was only interested in campaigns that were quixotic, or at least uphill," said Raymond Howell , a former Weld aide and now a public relations specialist in Boston. ``The least fun was his landslide reelection victory in 1994," said Howell, who managed that campaign.

``He was never in politics for the power," Howell said. ``He was always in politics for the gamesmanship. He was more interested in the intellectual chess game than in being crowned champion."

As governor, Weld often flashed his antic side. He attended Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones concerts, got tipsy at his second inaugural ball, and dived, fully clothed, into the Charles River at a bill-signing ceremony for a law to protect the state's rivers.

Intellectually restless and quirky, Weld was always unpredictable, never more so than in the years immediately after his loss to Kerry in 1996. It was a momentous campaign, a battle of political titans who engaged in a series of amazing televised debates. The winner would automatically gain consideration for a presidential run.

But Weld's timing was wrong. It was not the year to challenge a popular Democrat in a big D state. President Bill Clinton was coasting to reelection. Weld was swimming against a Democratic tide.

In November, he lost to Kerry by about 7 percentage points. He masked his disappointment well, but friends said the defeat was crushing.

His behavior became erratic. Weld would later refer to that period as ``my mid-life crisis."

The following year, after dominating state politics for years, Weld simply walked away from the governorship. President Clinton had nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico, and Weld abruptly quit, even though the nomination appeared doomed from the start by opposition from Jesse Helms, then a powerful Senate Republican. Weld withdrew his name from nomination in September after Helms refused to hold a confirmation hearing.

Weld, who had been US attorney and a top Justice Department official before his election in 1990, then joined a large law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, splitting his time between the Boston and New York offices.

In 1998, his first novel, ``Mackerel by Moonlight," was published, and ``Big Ugly" and ``Stillwater" followed in successive years, all to modest reviews. By 2000, his 25-year marriage to Susan Roosevelt , with whom he had raised five children, was headed for divorce.

By this time, Weld had left the law practice to become a partner of one his clients, a private equity firm that was renamed Leeds Weld & Co. He was also romantically involved with writer Leslie Marshall , a divorced mother of three, with whom he was living in adjoining apartments a block from Central Park on East 93d Street.

In a 2001 Globe story about this near-total reordering of his life, Weld said: ``One thing I have often said is that my governing passion in life is fear of boredom. I do think life is large, there are a lot of aspects to be lived, and I have acted accordingly."

Following his own divorce, Weld and Marshall married in 2003.

By 2004, he was seriously planning a political comeback that had long been rumored. Last year, he took the plunge, starting the 10-month campaign that ended yesterday.

As he was in 1996 against Kerry, Weld was a victim of his own miscalculation.

Told of Weld's decision yesterday afternoon, Kerry said: ``It's too bad. I like him. He's a classy guy. He's better than the way this turned out."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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