By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, a once-towering figure in New York politics whose reputation was diminished when he was censured in Washington, is again fighting to keep his seat as a group of Democrats prepare to challenge him in a primary on Tuesday.
Rangel, who has represented Harlem since 1971 and is a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, is battling a crowd of younger politicians in a redrawn district that is now heavily Latino. Yet most political watchers still see him being re-elected.
Rangel's opponents in the Democratic primary include state Senator Adriano Espaillat, who has strong Latino support; Clyde Williams, who worked in the Clinton White House and whose got a boost when he won endorsements from the New York Times and the New York Daily News; Harlem community activist Craig Schley, and businesswoman Joyce Johnson.
Espaillat has called the 82-year-old lawmaker the "poster child for dysfunction in Washington." And at a recent campaign event in Washington Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood just north of Harlem, Schley, a youthful former model, likened Rangel to a rotting fruit that had fallen from its tree.
Rangel has survived difficult times before. The U.S. House of Representatives censured him in 2010 for ethics violations, including failing to pay income taxes, and he stepped down as the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee. Rangel also had to fight a tough battle on Election Day that year to retain his seat.
Once one of the most powerful members of Congress, he now walks slowly through the halls of Capitol Hill with a cane.
But in seeking another term, Rangel has been defiant, insisting that his experience and influence is unrivaled by his opponents. "My record is out there for what I have done," Rangel said during a contentious debate on cable television.
"If you're Rangel, when it comes to opponents, the more the merrier" because the other candidates are likely to split any anti-Rangel votes, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Miringoff also said a string of endorsements, including from the state's popular Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, are important. "With all the controversy that's surrounded Rangel, having the Cuomo endorsement seems to suggest he is still a force to be reckoned with," Miringoff said.
While most political watchers agree Rangel is still strongly favored to win re-election, this year two other New York incumbents have stepped aside, paving the way for a new generation of ambitious lawmakers to come forward.
WORKING-CLASS VOTER BASE
Representative Gary Ackerman of Queens and Representative Ed Towns of Brooklyn, both Democrats, both announced they would not seek re-election this year.
In Ackerman's district that is now 40 percent Asian and also heavily Jewish, Democratic state Assemblywoman Grace Meng is vying to become the first Asian-American member of New York's congressional delegation.
Meng's Democratic rivals include state Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who has made support of Israel a central issue in the campaign, and City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who is hoping for a strong turn-out among her working-class voter base.
In the district that Towns has represented since 1983, state Assemblymen Hakeem Jeffries is touting his record of legislative achievements in the Democratic race against City Council Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who has strong support in some of Brooklyn's poorest areas, including East New York.
While Jeffries has won the endorsements of much of the Brooklyn political establishment, and his fund-raising has dwarfed that of Barron's, Barron has the support of Towns and the city's public employees union.
On the Republican side, three candidates are locked in a race to face U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in November: Congressman Bob Turner, who last year won an upset victory to replace liberal Congressman Anthony Weiner; attorney Wendy Long, who won the Conservative party nomination, and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos.
While voters approve of Gillibrand's job performance by a margin of six in 10, more than three-quarters of voters said they do not know enough about her Republican rivals to form an opinion of them, a Quinnipiac University poll found last month.
Primaries are also being held on Tuesday in Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma, while South Carolina will hold primary runoffs for both parties for a newly-drawn congressional seat.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)