NEW YORK — New York. OFTEN WHEN PEOPLE mention the presidency, Mario Cuomo suggests he was born with a handicap to such ambitions: his name. Some others, including Democrats elsewhere who admire him, agree in subtler terms. After Michael Dukakis, they say, their party cannot risk nominating another northeastern liberal ethnic in 1992.
But in national politics on the downside of the 20th century, a man's surname, even his race may not matter as much as his geography. Anyone who tries to step from the urban Northeast )) to the White House has to overcome much more than the shift of electoral college dominance to the Sunbelt.
As he approached a lopsided victory in his campaign for a third term as governor, Mr. Cuomo looked at his record and admitted that if he were graded by whether he had solved all the problems before him, then he failed. ''I have a secret for you,'' he told the New York Times. ''Everybody is going to fail. The most you can do, it seems to me, is hope to make some difference.''
He was speaking as governor, but the heart of his pessimism is the city, not the state. New York City drags him down, as Boston drags down Mr. Dukakis, as Philadelphia and Baltimore do their states and governors. Being mayor of such a city is an impossible job, but the cities have enough troubles to spread far beyond their boundaries.
Since David Dinkins became New York's first black mayor last year, the city's budget squeeze has closed in on him. Revenue for the past fiscal year fell three-fourths of a billion dollars short of estimates.
While trying to cope both with this and unrelenting demand for city services, he has reached a costly deal with teachers and set forth an expensive anti-crime program. He has called for a commuter tax to help pay for transit police. After delaying hiring of 1,800 police, he has threatened to cut 15,000 other workers from the city payroll.
His well-wishers, people who helped him get elected, are saying he looks incompetent, unwilling to face problems until too late. He too could easily say, with more justification, ''Everybody is going to fail.''
The city adds up its murders by the gross -- three dozen this week, four next -- and finds many of them inexplicable, with no apparent motive. I take the subway between two midtown points, and wait on the platform with a feeling I haven't had since squatting hiding in the dark on a combat patrol in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have given up the subways outside rush hour.
Here and there streets are collapsing into the worn-out pipes and tunnels below. The homeless are not in twos and threes, as elsewhere; they have created cardboard villages in sheltered spots. High school dropouts, infant deaths are soaring. The president of the city council says to one reporter, ''There's a sense of fear I've never seen in the city before. People are moving out. Companies are moving out. This is an emergency.''
On Staten Island, a ferry ride from the Battery, a whole borough is thinking of getting out. On this week's ballot is a proposal for an official study of withdrawing from the city, leaving Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to sink or swim without Staten Island's almost 400,000 citizens.
Because it had least political clout, the once-bucolic island was made the literal dumping ground for the rest of the city, chosen against its will as home for the biggest garbage dump in the world. Since then, a court ruled that the city's Board of Estimates was unfairly apportioned. That cut Staten Island's influence even more. Many of its voters want out. An opponent of the move calls it ''white flight . . . in this case, we're taking the land with us.''
Mr. Cuomo has endorsed the Staten Island withdrawal study. Partly, that is simple politics: one poll says three-fourths of the people there support the study. But if it's approved, the pullout can't take place for years. The governor's other reason may be wishful thinking, empathy with how Staten Islanders feel.
If he could be transformed into the governor of Texas instead, or Georgia or Colorado, his Hamlet musings about the presidency could cease. With his brains, his forcefulness, his speaking talent, yes even his name, he would be a shoo-in for the nomination.
But he is here. His latest way of evading questions about the White House is to say that even after being re-elected Tuesday by a huge margin, he can't discuss national office unless he can straighten out New York's fiscal problems. That's as close as he comes to conceding that only magic can make him president.