Early in the campaign, environmentalist attorney, Laurance S. Rockefeller brother of the former governor Nelson, tried to challenge D'Amato in the Republican primary, but fell short of the required signatures to get onto the primary ballot. D'Amato summarily went unchallenged.
The Democratic primary campaign featured State Attorney General Robert Abrams, former U.S. Congresswoman and 1984 vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, Reverend Al Sharpton, Congressman Robert J. Mrazek, and New York City Comptroller and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman. Abrams was considered the early front-runner. Ferraro emphasized her career as a teacher, prosecutor, congresswoman, and mother, and talked about how she was tough on crime. Ferraro drew attacks from the media and her opponents over her husband John Zaccaro's finances and business relationships.
Ferraro became the front-runner, capitalizing on her star power from 1984 and using the campaign attacks against her as an explicitly feminist rallying point for women voters. As the primary date neared, her lead began to dwindle under the charges, and she released additional tax returns from the 1980s to try to defray the attacks. Holtzman ran a negative ad accusing Ferraro and Zaccaro of taking more than $300,000 in rent in the 1980s from a pornographer with purported ties to organized crime. The final debates were nasty, and Holtzman in particular constantly attacked Ferraro's integrity and finances. In an unusual election-eve television broadcast, Ferraro talked about the ethnic slurs made against her as an Italian-American. In the September 15, 1992 primary, Abrams edged out Ferraro by less than percentage point, winning 37 percent of the vote to 36 percent. Ferraro did not concede she had lost for two weeks.
After Abrams emerged as the nominee, the Democrats remained divided. In particular, Abrams spent much of the remainder of the campaign trying to get Ferraro's endorsement. Ferraro, enraged and bitter after the nature of the primary, ignored Abrams and accepted Bill Clinton's request to campaign for his presidential bid instead. She was eventually persuaded by state party leaders into giving an unenthusiastic endorsement with just three days to go before the general election, in exchange for an apology by Abrams for the tone of the primary.
Abrams was also criticized for calling D'Amato a fascist, and he narrowly lost the general election as a result of these controversies.