NEW YORK — THE DEMOCRATS are not the only politicians waiting for Gov. Mario Cuomo to make up his mind on running for president. Republican leaders in his own state are joining the Mario Watch, with moods ranging from gleeful anticipation to mild trepidation.
Some like Rep.Gerald Solomon of Saratoga, seem unable to contain their zest for having him run and be nominated to oppose President Bush. In what undoubtedly will be a Republican slogan if Cuomo runs, Solomon says: "Governor Cuomo wants to do for America what he's done for New York. And what he's done for New York state indicates he will go down to a worse defeat than Michael Dukakis in 1988."
New York Assembly Minority Leader Clarence Rappleyea of Norwich agrees. "His record here in New York is going to be very tough to defend. The governor is fond of blaming the state's problems on the economy and Washington, but a lot of his policies have been blue smoke and mirrors." For instance, Rappleyea says, Cuomo has borrowed against segments of the state's infrastructure to cope with increasing budget costs and adds: "You don't mortgage the house to paint it." Since Cuomo became governor in 1983, he says, tax collections and federal aid to the state have nearly doubled. Still, Rappleyea says he does not sell Cuomo short as a politician, a view shared by state party vice chair Jacqueline Miner. "People who are underestimating Mario Cuomo are making a mistake," she says. "He's the best speaker in the United States, a formidable candidate, and I'm nervous about him."
If he runs, is nominated and the Republicans attack his governing of New York, Miner says, "Cuomo will try to turn it right back on the president for the state of the national economy. We Republicans better pay attention, and the fact is we've been dismissing him as easy to beat." That attitude finds comfort in a recent statewide poll by ABCews in which only 36 percent of those surveyed said Cuomo was doing a good job, to 60 percent who said he wasn't. In a theoretical presidential race between Cuomo and Bush, the president ran ahead, 55 percent to 42, in Cuomo's own state.
Jay Severin, a New York Republican consultant, says holding Cuomo to his performance in Albany is the key to defeating him, but "too many assume it's a silver bullet."
If he is able as a candidate to turn the campaign into a contest over rhetoric, Severin suggests, he can be effective. "But if we're talking about his governorship, he's dead meat."
If the GOP can't nail Cuomo on his record as governor, some Republicans say, he can be "Dukakisized" by accusing him of being soft on crime. They point to the case of Arthur Shawcross who, after being convicted of manslaughter in New York in the 1972 death of a five-year-old girl, was paroled in 1987 and was convicted again last year in the serial killings of 11 women.
Rep. Bill Paxon of Buffalo and other Republicans, drawing ......TC rather contorted comparison with the infamous Willie Horton case, argue that had Cuomo not vetoed every bill in Albany proposing the death penalty, Shawcross never would have been paroled. Still other Republicans in the state, however, shy away from rekindling the Willie Horton-type attack against potential candidate Cuomo. For one thing, that attack was particularly potent politically because it involved a black man raping a white woman, and Shawcross is white.
"People are looking for substance this time around," Vice Chair Miner warns, "and we shouldn't get into that now. People don't want to know about Willie Horton and the pledge of allegiance, or even to say we won the (gulf) war. We'd better have a better plan."
William Powers, the New York GOP chairman, says pinning New York's economic woes on Cuomo is that better plan, and no matter how Cuomo tries to slough off responsibility by blaming Bush, he won't get away with it if he runs for president. "New York's bond rating is the third-lowest in the country," Powers says. "President Bush didn't do that. Everything is everybody else's fault but Mario's."
It's clear from all this that New York Republicans don't take lightly the man in Albany who their president might have to run against next November. But it's clear as well that they're confident they have the political ammunition with which to turn a Cuomo challenge aside -- if it happens, and if it gets that far.