ALBANY — As Gov. Kathy Hochul traverses the state touting the effectiveness of vaccinations in countering infection risk, her Democratic rival, Attorney General Tish James, says the state government has failed to effectively respond to the contagion in the state's "most vulnerable communities."

The jab thrown by James represents an opening volley in the battle between the two leading Democratic primary candidates seeking their party's nomination in next June's primary election.

The selection of topics — the management of COVID-19 — also suggests that the pandemic will prove to be a theater in other political skirmishes taking shape in the state, including those for state attorney general and congressional seats.

Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, said James is apparently banking on the view that Democratic voters are generally supportive of stringent restrictions to deal with the pandemic at a time when infections are increasing even after most New Yorkers have been vaccinated.

"The Democratic primary electorate is the most restriction-friendly and the most in favor of the most aggressive actions," Reeher said. "They are going to be in favor of state intervention in the economy and in our lives in order to try to get ahead of this thing."

While James stopped short of mentioning Hochul by name, she decried the fact that the COVID-19 positivity rate in Western New York went to nearly 9.5% last weekend and noted the virus spread is "especially troubling" in several other regions as well, including the Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes.

"It is time to act now to save lives," James said in a statement released by her campaign. "Anything short of bold action is unacceptable."

Hochul has been emphasizing that COVID-19 vaccines are readily available throughout the state, and is urging those who have received initial doses to get booster shots. Her administration announced several new vaccine sites where school children can be immunized.

The state Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, meanwhile, issued a memo authorizing corrections officers working in prisons to grow beards if they are vaccinated by year's end.

James argues the state should be using community leaders in public service announcements and robocalls to urge people to get vaccinated, with those messages available in all the "essential languages" used in the state. She also wants what she calls a census-style civilian corps, with workers hired through non-profit agencies to go door to door to promote vaccinations.

According to a survey of likely Democratic voters issued by Data for Progress this week, Hochul remains the early favorite in a hypothetical matchup with the attorney general, with an 11-point lead and 19% undecided. When other New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and other potential aspirants were added to the mix, Hochul remained on top while James was identified as her closest challenger.

Late Tuesday, Hochul announced her administration will be relying on text messages in English and Spanish as well as advertising to "ensure vaccination and eligibility news reaches New Yorkers directly. The announcement came just 48 hours after James unfurled her plan.

By taking on Hochul on pandemic management, James is trying to erode the governor's incumbency advantage, said Luke Perry, director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research.

James, Perry said, "is drawing a contrast to the governor over key issues that have deep and wide impact on people at large."

At the same time, he added, Hochul could get an advantage from being seen more favorably by the public with her pandemic leadership than her predecessor. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo left office in August while facing criticism for his undercount of nursing home patient deaths, allegations that politically-connected individuals got special access to COVID-19 testing and alleged improper use of state resources to write a book about the public health crisis.

While Hochul is ahead in the polls, Perry said there is sufficient time for James and other rivals to slice into her lead by building up their campaign funds, increasing their name recognition with voters and distinguishing their vision for the state from Hochul's campaign platform.

Rounding out the Democrat gubernatorial field for the time being is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-Long, Island, is expected to soon announce whether he will join the race. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has also been considering getting into the primary.

Reeher said Hochul has been aggressive on some fronts, including with her controversial vaccination mandate for health care workers.

"She's pushed on this in some ways that have been hard," he said. "With the mandate for the hospital workers, there was a lot of pushback on that — a lot. It was thought at the time she was overreaching. So it is kind of strange to hear, 'Well, you haven't done enough.' But, then again, the numbers keep getting worse."

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