Schumer and Obama take control of Gillibrand’s fate in the primary

A major offensive is under way to make sure New York Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program MORE is the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2010, and the biggest guns of all — President Obama and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates Beware the tea party of the left Bottom line MORE — are leading the charge.

Obama made a splash Friday by convincing Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) not to challenge Gillibrand in a primary, and his backing provided a warning shot for any Democrats who would enter the race.

A New York Democratic source confirmed Monday that Schumer (D-N.Y.) made the call to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who then got Obama on the horn with Israel.

While it is evidence of friends in high places, it is also evidence of just how far askew the situation has become.

There was plenty of griping among the state’s opinionated congressional delegation when the young, centrist Gillibrand was appointed to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s old seat in January, but the situation didn’t become serious until Israel made it clear in recent days that he was ready to launch his campaign.

While Obama made the big splash, Schumer has emerged to take ownership of the situation. He was instrumental in getting Gillibrand the appointment, but his advocacy had been understated until recently.

What is expected to be a steady stream of public support for Gillibrand continued Monday with endorsements from state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Rep. Yvette Clarke — two New York City power brokers endorsing a centrist from upstate.

Now it will be largely up to Schumer to shepherd his protégé through what remains of her primary peril.

“The challenge is to make sure his authority is not challenged, and that’s what occurred here,” said Empire State Democratic consultant Hank Scheinkopf. “It will probably turn out the way Sen. Schumer will want it.”

Schumer’s fingerprints are all over Gillibrand’s appointment. And while it probably would have been safer for him and Gov. David Paterson (D) to pick a more established member like Israel, picking Gillibrand essentially gave Schumer a close and indebted ally in the state’s other Senate seat.

But that has also opened the door to a competitive Democratic primary, given Gillibrand’s conservative record on social issues like gun rights and illegal immigration. The primary chatter reached a fever pitch last week, when Israel’s entry appeared imminent. (One Democratic operative close to Israel said that nothing, short of the president’s urging, would have derailed Israel.)

Even while the Israel momentum was building, though, The New York Times quoted Schumer saying at a fundraiser that there would not be a primary.

Then came Obama. Similar pressure will undoubtedly be visited upon any other member who takes significant steps toward running, including Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Carolyn McCarthyCarolyn McCarthyWhy Congress needs an openly atheist member, now Lobbying World Lobbying world MORE and José Serrano.

Maloney has reportedly been telling people she will enter the race, while McCarthy has said she will run if nobody else does.

That pressure is now beginning to be meted out publicly. Last week came NARAL Pro-Choice New York, which picked Gillibrand over women’s rights champion Maloney, and on Monday came Smith and Clarke.

In the coming days, Gillibrand is expected to add labor groups, more members of the congressional delegation and county chairmen.

“They don’t want to just leave this as one thing, and then let’s move on,” said a New York Democratic operative preparing to endorse Gillibrand. “They want to end any discussion of a primary.”

For their part, Maloney and McCarthy have expressed resilience, saying Obama’s efforts to push Israel aside will have no effect on their deliberations.

Maloney said in a statement Sunday that she was unfazed, and that she is focused on the credit card bill and her Sept. 11 health bill for the time being.

“I respect the choices that every member makes about their future,” Maloney said. “Steve Israel’s decision to not run for the U.S. Senate was his choice to make, but it doesn’t affect my decisionmaking process.”

While much of the Democratic establishment has been going to bat for Gillibrand, her numbers have yet to rise out of the danger zone.

A Marist poll from earlier this month showed Gillibrand with a 19 percent favorable rating and a 38 percent unfavorable rating. She led Maloney 36-31 in a prospective primary.

The poll actually showed Gillibrand’s numbers deteriorating in recent months, and her losing ground in the general election.

Even Gillibrand’s supporters acknowledge there is an opportunity there. And, as state Democratic consultant Joseph Mercurio points out, there might not be another one for decades.

“If she’s the candidate, there’s only one shot at doing a primary,” Mercurio said. “After that, it’s practically like a life appointment. You’re talking about a whole generation of congressmen who will never be anything other than congressmen.”

J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this report.