Governor Cuomo faces a solvable dilemma On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

October 28, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON MARIO CUOMO is telling friends pressing him to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination that his main concern now is whether he would have to resign as governor, "abandoning" New York in times of travail. Rep. Tom Downey of New York, who hitically it would be "more powerful if he left by the first of the year," thus making a clear statement of his commitment.

Cuomo has been saying that he doesn't see how he could compete in the arduous presidential primaries and caucuses around the country while doing justice to his responsibil

ities in Albany. When then-Gov. Michael Dukakis came to him in 1987 and posed the same dilemma, however, Cuomo told him that Democratic control of the Massachusetts legislature would make it possible. Cuomo, though, has to deal with a Republican state Senate, and the state budget, in the heart of the 1992 primary-caucus season.

Nevertheless, Cuomo is overstating his problem. First, his popularity in the party and name identification would make him, if he ran, the immediate front runner for the nomination in the polls and among party leaders. With his proven fund-raising ability in a big-money state, he wouldn't have to beg for campaign nickels and dimes. Nor would he have to slog through the early primary states getting known, although he couldn't be so scarce as to seem to be snubbing the locals.

For one thing, the late start in the Democratic competition has already shortened the 1992 political calendar. For another, Cuomo could easily finesse the kickoff Iowa caucuses on Feb. 10, as most of the other Democratic contenders are expected to do, in deference to the candidacy of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

The next two delegate-selection events, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 23 and the Maine caucuses on Feb. 25, are only a hop, skip and jump from Albany. After that, among the 23 states holding contests in the first three weeks in March, Cuomo could pick and choose. Assuming he came out of New Hampshire and Maine a clear winner, he could render relatively meaningless those March primaries and caucuses he chose to skip. Candidates who did compete in them would be reduced to a competition to determine the party's alternative to Cuomo.

Some Democrats closest to Cuomo say they still believe he will opt out of 1992 rather than "abandon" New York. But what would happen if he resigned and what would happen if he didn't and ran for president? In both cases, his hand-picked lieutenant governor, Stanley Lundine, would be in charge in Albany. Either way, Cuomo would be counting on the same individual to carry on his policies there. If Cuomo really wants to seek the presidency, there are plenty of rationales for him to do so without having to "abandon" New York.

Downey says he and other New York congressmen, as individuals who understand the challenges Cuomo still faces in New York, have been working to convince the governor that he can do more to help New York from the White House than from Albany. Cuomo himself has been harping on the argument that Reagan/Bush policies in Washington have dumped national domestic problems on the states when national solutions are required.

State party chairman John Marino says he believes the governor has rid himself of another long-held hang-up, that there are other Democrats who can carry the debate to President Bush as effectively as he can. Cuomo's recent statement suggesting that if national party chairman Ron Brown told him he "could best serve" the party by running he would "have no choice," is read by some as a call for Brown to anoint him.

That, however, is not going to happen, now that there are six other major Democrats in the race. Brown says only that "we've got a group of good, solid change-oriented candidates. I'm very pleased with the present field. If Mario Cuomo gets in, he would be another." All Brown wants from Cuomo is for him to make up his mind by Nov. 5, this fall's election day, to end the uncertainty and permit voters to focus on the Democratic field as it is then. By that time, Cuomo should be able to convince himself that he can run and continue as governor -- if that's what he really wants to do.

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