Pataki's Future Hurt By Ground-Zero Delays?

As he ponders a run for national office in 2008 or a bid for a fourth term next year, Gov. George Pataki (search) finds himself dragged down by what had been widely viewed as a major political asset: the ambitious rebuilding at ground zero.

On Wednesday, Pataki announced that the breathtaking, 1,776-foot Freedom Tower (search) that will rise on the site of the World Trade Center (search) will have to be redesigned because of security concerns.

Officials now say construction on the tower, which had been scheduled for completion in 2009, might fall a year behind schedule.

It was the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the Pataki-led reconstruction efforts, including a long battle over the tower's original design, the placement of a mass transit hub and the design of a memorial to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 attack (search).

As he travels the country to raise his national profile for a possible run for president, the Republican has seen his poll numbers slide and has been subjected to batterings by editorial writers over the reconstruction effort and growing charges from Democrats that he has failed to lead.

"Gov. Pataki has spent so much time out of state that he has neglected one of our state's most critical priorities. This rebuilding failure has occurred on his watch and is his responsibility," said Rodney Capel, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

A headline in the New York Post proclaimed: "Gov's Crumbling Legacy."

Pataki spokesman David Catalfamo said Friday that "people who talk about rebuilding in terms of politics just don't get it."

"Rebuilding is about more than one person," he said. "It's about reclaiming New York's skyline and building a lasting memorial to those we lost on Sept. 11. Generations to come will visit the site of the most horrific attack on American soil. With the Freedom Tower that will stand for a hundred years, the governor believes it's our obligation to get this right."

Nonetheless, the political decline for Pataki has been sharp.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, Pataki's approval rating soared to 81 percent as measured by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"We will rebuild, we will succeed," he declared less than four months later.

In 2002, after a campaign in which he proclaimed himself to be the leader to meet the post-Sept. 11 challenges, Pataki easily won a third, four-year term.

And on July 4, 2004, he was back at ground zero for the laying of the Freedom Tower's cornerstone.

"How badly our enemies underestimated the resiliency of this city and the resolve of these United States," he declared. "In less than three years, we have more than just plans on paper — we place here today the cornerstone, the foundation of a new tower."

But faced with fiscal problems, a sluggish economy and the battles over how to rebuild, Pataki saw his approval rating hit an all-time low of 34 percent in February.

A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, a few hours before Pataki's announcement about the redesign of the Freedom Tower, showed the governor trailing state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (search), 53 percent to 32 percent, in a possible matchup for governor.

Michael McKeon, a former top Pataki aide who is now a consultant and lobbyist, said the delay is "just a blip on the screen."

"The key will be what is going on with lower Manhattan as he nears the end of his current term" at the end of 2006, McKeon said. By then, he said, the redesigned Freedom Tower will be starting to rise and "lower Manhattan will be safe and spectacular."