"There is a sense of absolute aggravation on the part of voters," political analyst Alan Chartock said in Albany. "I've never seen anything like it. People are just holding their heads in their hands."
Some voters are grasping for Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, he said, even though they know nothing about him. "This is the real politics of disillusionment," Chartock said.
Two-thirds of Democrats in the state wish someone else were running, according to a local TV poll. With the electorate so dissatisfied, the New York result could be the one that forces party leaders to start planning for a brokered convention.
"There's a growing consternation that the person likely to lead the country is Bill Clinton or George Bush," said Mervin Field, a California pollster, "and the country is appalled."
Clinton built a strong organization in New York, but that has not stopped the flow of bad press and the climb in his negative ratings. Statewide, New York voters think less of Clinton than they do of Brown, who turned the race on its head last week by winning Connecticut and who has assumed the role of ABC alternative - Anybody But Clinton.
Worse for Clinton, half of the Democratic voters said he lacked integrity.
Brown received a boost yesterday when Jesse Jackson said he would be honored to run as the party's vice president. While he insisted at a voter- registration drive that he was not signing on with Brown, Jackson came close - Brown is the only candidate who has said he wanted Jackson as his running mate.
This follows an endorsement of Brown by the 117,000-member Local 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union and its influential president, Dennis Rivera. With its heavy minority membership, the union was key in winning New York for Jackson in 1988 and in electing David N. Dinkins as mayor.
Jackson's comment and the endorsement could help Brown make major inroads into the black community, which Clinton dominated in earlier primaries and has relied on as part of his winning coalition.
But Clinton has been on the defensive here. He spent last week apologizing to blacks for playing golf recently at an all-white country club in Arkansas. And some blacks in New York are questioning his support for the death penalty and his state's recent execution of a brain-damaged black man, an act Brown calls "a moral abomination."
Clinton continues to preach his message of racial harmony. He points out that his daughter attends the Little Rock public schools and that he has appointed more minorities and women to his administration than all previous Arkansas governors combined.
Clinton, who grew up in Baptist churches, makes a habit of attending black churches in each primary state, clapping along with the choirs and saying a few words from the pulpit. Trying to counter reports of his indiscretions, he told a black congregation here Sunday: "Jesus stepped in to help the woman caught in adultery about to be stoned, and he said, 'Let those who are without sin cast the first stone.' "
It is a plea for redemption that has worked elsewhere for Clinton, but the New York tabloids have been merciless. They made hay of his admission, made after years of avoiding a direct answer, that he smoked marijuana two decades ago. He is being criticized not because he smoked but for his evasions.
As he has before, Clinton is now trying to vault over the heads of the media and reach the voters directly. With his staff in near panic over the prospects of a poor showing in New York, Clinton suddenly called for several debates with Brown.
It is a classic underdog strategy that suggests one of two things: Clinton is in real trouble, or he wants to give the impression of being in real trouble so that when he does well, he can claim a huge victory.
His foray onto the Donahue show, taped yesterday and broadcast today, seemed to pay off immediately. After Phil Donahue repeatedly questioned Clinton about his personal affairs, Clinton drew enthusiastic applause from the audience when he lectured Donahue: "I'm not going to answer any more of these questions. I've answered them until I'm blue in the face. You are responsible for the cynicism in this country. You don't want to talk about the real issues."
In the debates, Clinton can be expected to keep hammering at Brown's proposed flat tax. Clinton has to make the race about something other than
himself, argues poll-taker Jack Leslie.
"If Clinton can't do that," he said, "and the race is in the broader context of who represents real change and who represents the status quo, Brown may advance here as he did in Connecticut."
Connecticut residents were so turned off by the choice that only 11 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls - the lowest of all the states so far. If turnout is low in New York, analysts say, Brown will benefit
because it will be mostly liberals who vote.
"Anything can happen in New York," said consultant Norman Adler. "You could have the best vacation of your life, or you could get killed."