Washington -- A VINTAGE liberal Democrat from Ne Hampshire -- you know the type, she supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Morris Udall in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980 -- said the other day that she was thinking about backing Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Then she added: "Unless, of course, Cuomo runs."
This is the name of the game in the Democratic Party today, waiting for Mario Cuomo to decide whether he will be a candidate. No other single decision has the potential to shape the campaign -- and perhaps the health of the party -- in the next decade.
The conditions are already ripe for a scarring internal contest. If Cuomo runs, there is certain to be a vigorous anyone-but-Cuomo campaign behind one of the more conservative alternatives. The obvious possibilities are Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Such a polarization could set the stage for a candidate perceived as more centrist, such as House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt or one who does not come into the contest with any clear ideological identification, such as Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.
But Cuomo is the key. The assumption in the political community is that the New York governor would be a strong favorite for the nomination because of the disproportionate influence of liberal activists in the caucus and primary competition for delegates. But many party professionals are also persuaded that Cuomo, another Northeastern ethnic liberal, could be a disaster for his party in the general election contest against President Bush.
Such formulations are too pat to be taken at face value. If it is true that Cuomo would be carrying some heavy political baggage into the campaign, it is equally accurate to say that he is a politician of such personal force that Republicans would find it far more difficult to define him in their own terms than they found Michael Dukakis three years ago.
The operative point now, however, is that a Cuomo candidacy would have at least two results. First, it could overwhelm such liberal alternatives as Tom Harkin and perhaps Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Second, it would evoke an intense reaction from Democrats in the South and some Western states who have reached a point at which they are no longer willing to swallow a candidate they see as the lineal successor of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
The distance between Cuomo and these more centrist party leaders is most apparent in the sparring between him and the Democratic Leadership Council. In an interview with David S. Broder of the Washington Post the other day, Cuomo criticized the DLC for its "implicit position that we have something we have to apologize for and now we have to move to the middle."
Cuomo holds some high cards if he cares to play them. He is the best known of any of the likely Democratic candidates except Jesse Jackson and thus could afford to delay a decision until October or November with a reasonable assurance he still would have time to raise enough money to compete effectively. If the California primary is moved up to March 3, now a realistic possibility, he would have a decided advantage in competing in a situation in which name recognition and money would be the prime assets.
If Cuomo were to decide against running, the internal warfare in the party probably would be far less intense, depending on who else decides to compete. Without Cuomo in the field, Harkin could expect to be a rallying point for liberals, just as Clinton or Gore or both could be for more centrist Democrats. The wild cards in the field would be Gephardt, who associates depict as genuinely undecided, and Rockefeller, whose celebrity gives him measure of insulation from easy stereotyping.
But the critical question for the Democrats is whether any of these candidates can move effectively to establish themselves over the summer while Cuomo is making a series of speeches around the country -- speeches ostensibly intended to define a Democratic domestic agenda but inevitably seen as preparing the ground for a Cuomo candidacy.
At least two of them, Rockefeller and Harkin, seemed prepared to try, along with Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. But the final shape of the Democratic contest will not become clear until Mario Cuomo makes his move.