BUFFALO, N.Y. — This column is going to be what Mario Cuomo calls "another dumb story" speculating on whether he intends to run for president in 1992.
Mr. Cuomo himself says essentially only what he has been
saying for the last eight years -- that he would run only if there were no other Democrat both qualified and "available," a circumstance he cannot imagine. But this time around he has felt no need to "take a Sherman" and declare he would not run under any circumstances. "They'd say, 'He must have colon cancer, he must have a Mafia uncle,' " he scoffs.
He defines the test for a candidacy in a rhetorical question: "What does the country need that you supply better than anyone else?"
There is, nonetheless, a compellingly logical case that can be made that Mr. Cuomo will indeed almost inevitably be drawn into the 1992 campaign -- a logic that can be denied only if you swallow the idea that Mr. Cuomo is not an ambitious political leader of consummate self-assurance.
One element of that logic is the political strength Mr. Cuomo has shown in his two terms as governor of New York. Despite serious state fiscal problems, his position this year is so imposing that the Republicans are reduced to running a political joke against him, and the only question is the size of his plurality for re-election.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Cuomo doesn't buy that line. "It's not a joke campaign, it's a very real campaign," he says as he flies across upstate New York. He didn't believe people who told him he couldn't win the Democratic nomination against then Mayor Ed Koch in 1982, and "now I don't believe it when they tell me I can't lose." He is not just running against three other candidates, he says, but against "conditions" -- meaning, among other things, distress in the economy.
But those conditions are, of course, part of the case for a Cuomo candidacy in 1992. "This situation is going to be condition-dominated," he says. "The economic situation, the social problems are going to be dominant." What Mr. Cuomo does not say, although other Democrats already are saying it, is that such a context is made for a Democratic candidate who is, as he likes to style himself, "a progressive pragmatist."
Political professionals argue there is still another element of the political context these days that supports the case for Mr. Cuomo. Campaigns have become far less ideological or issue-oriented and far more centered on the personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. What other candidate, they ask, has the kind of personal force of Mario Cuomo?
Some of those who know Mr. Cuomo best add still another factor to the equation, his own combativeness and personal history. They say the prospect of running as a clear underdog against a white-shoe, preppy Republican from Andover and Yale would have great appeal to the Italian-American from Queens. But it is a theory that Mr. Cuomo emphatically derides. To base a campaign on such personal factors, he says, would be "self-aggrandizing . . . the height of egoism and the height of selfishness."
The proof of his lack of interest in running, he says, lies in the fact he has done none of the things potential candidates ordinarily do to lay the groundwork early for the primary campaign. But that argument is disingenuous. Mario Cuomo is not a Michael Dukakis or a Bruce Babbitt who needs to build some name recognition so he can establish his credentials as a serious player.
On the contrary, he is by far the best known of the realistic possibilities for 1992 and could delay a decision another year and still have the time to raise the money and do the things needed to compete. Indeed, there were many professionals who believed Mr. Cuomo could have entered the 1988 competition as late as December of 1987 and still have captured the nomination.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cuomo says just enough about national politics to intrigue other politicians. He doesn't fault President Bush so much on policy questions as he does for lacking "a rationale" for his party and his stewardship. And, he says, the same lack of a rationale is evident among Democrats when, for example, they fail to embrace such an obvious opportunity as reductions in Social Security taxes rather than capital gains as a device for priming the pump.
But he is less definite on whether he must run this time or be forever seen as the Hamlet of Albany and no longer viable. "They said that last time," he says with a shrug.