Gov. George Pataki is facing an increasingly competitive race for a third term after riding a post-Sept. 11 wave of popularity for months and successfully courting traditionally Democratic interest groups.

The Republican governor has mounted an aggressive attack on Democratic challenger H. Carl McCall. McCall, the state comptroller, says Pataki is running scared. The Pataki camp says it's just smart politics.

In the past week, Pataki has launched several geographically and ethnically based television advertisements against McCall, the first black candidate to win a major party nomination for governor of New York.

In New York City, a Pataki Spanish-language TV ad criticizes McCall's tenure as the city Board of Education's president from 1991-93. In the suburban counties, a Pataki ad features a clip of McCall stating during a TV interview that a tax on commuters should be reimposed.

An ad running north of the city's suburbs features McCall saying that when it comes to state aid, upstate school districts "have been getting more than they deserve."

"When a person who's supposed to have a big lead runs an ad like that which attacks Carl McCall ... that's a dead giveaway that Gov. Pataki thinks Carl McCall can win," former President Clinton said in the wake of the commuter tax ad.

Pataki denied any nervousness.

"I've never been frightened in any race," he said.

But Pataki has been stung. He narrowly lost a bid for the Independence Party nomination to billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano in a Sept. 10 primary, the first time the governor has tasted electoral defeat in 20 years.

On Wednesday, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute released a poll showing Pataki leading McCall, 45 percent to 34 percent, among likely voters. Golisano was at 13 percent.

"This is a real election," said Maurice Carroll, the institute's director.

Pataki's double-digit lead is impressive in a state where Democrats have a 5-3 enrollment edge over Republicans, but is a far cry from where he stood just a few months ago.

Less than a month after the terrorist attacks, Pataki's approval rating was 81 percent and a Quinnipiac poll show he led McCall, 59 percent to 26 percent.

With McCall running strongly among black voters -- 86 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll -- Pataki has been heavily courting Hispanics. He has learned to speak Spanish and has a Hispanic woman, a former state judge, on the GOP ticket for attorney general.

McCall generally plays down the racial aspect to the race.

"It's an issue for you, so you'll tell people about it," McCall told the New York State Associated Press Association conference in Albany Thursday.

McCall has narrowed the gap against Pataki and appears to have picked up momentum since Andrew Cuomo, trailing badly in the polls, quit a week before the primary.

Nonetheless, the primary campaign against the elder son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo left the comptroller with only $2 million, half of which was loaned to the campaign by McCall's millionaire runningmate, businessman Dennis Mehiel.

McCall has also recently come under criticism for two letters he wrote to two company executives on state stationary to try to help his daughter and a cousin get jobs.

"All public officials routinely make recommendations. Family members shouldn't be excluded," McCall said Saturday at an address to students at Columbia University in New York.

Since the primary, McCall has generally limited himself to one campaign appearance a day, spending the rest of the time trying to raise money. Meanwhile, Pataki is crisscrossing the state, handing out state grants, while his campaign, riding a $10 million cushion, pumps out new TV ads almost every other day.

A fund-raising reception in New York City to aid McCall drew only about 150 people Thursday even though former Vice President Al Gore was the star attraction. McCall aides said the event was put together hurriedly and that bad weather held down attendance.

Clinton is headlining an Oct. 23 McCall fund-raiser. Pataki has former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani starring at one Oct. 10.

Pataki has picked up a string of endorsements from traditionally Democratic labor unions and, for a Republican, has unusually strong support in New York City.

"Pataki is weaker than other Republicans upstate, but he's stronger in New York City because of 9/11," said Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who is not involved in the race.