POLITICS is a rough game. And Mario Cuomo is seeing a preview of what he might be up against if he runs for president.
He has already been accused by some Republicans of being named Mario.
There is no way Cuomo can deny it. It's right there on his birth certificate and other official documents.
His name was first raised as an issue by Sen. Phil Gramm, who said: "We don't have many Marios down there" (in Texas).
This was taken by pundits to mean that someone with a foreign-sounding name like Mario would be viewed with suspicion by Texas guys named Bart, Clint, Bubba or Tex.
Then came Vice President Dan Quayle. During a TV gab session, Quayle made a point of referring to the New York governor as Mario rather than as Gov. Cuomo, Mr. Cuomo or plain Cuomo.
Cuomo took offense at that, since he and Quayle aren't old pals and on a first-name basis. And he suggested that the Republicans might be trying to nudge voters into remembering that he is an Italian-American from New York rather than a proper WASP from New England or real American Hoosier from Indiana.
The next his-name-is-Mario blast came from Marlin Fitzwater, President Bush's press secretary, who said: "That's his name -- Mario. Mario, Mario, Mario, Mario. He better get used to it."
So what does this mean? Is a moniker like Mario a political liability? If Cuomo is a candidate, would the Republicans be able to chant "Mario, Mario, Mario" and frighten millions of American voters into believing that with a president named Mario they will be forced to listen to grand opera and eat garlic?
Well, it is true that Mario is not a common name. I happen to know several Marios because I live in a city that has a sizable Italian-American population. And almost any New Yorker knows a Mario or two.
But off the top of my head, I can think of only two other famous Marios: Mario Lanza, the Hollywood singing star, and Mario Andretti, the famous racing driver.
When I mentioned this to my friend Slats Grobnik, he said: "You're forgetting the most famous Mario in the history of the world."
I looked at him blankly, so he said: "I'll give you one clue: He breaks bricks with his head. Him and his brother Luigi."
Of course. How foolish of me to forget. The one and only Super Mario, the Nintendo game superstar.
If you have children or grandchildren, it is likely that you are familiar with Super Mario. About 40 million Mario games have been sold in the last six years. It is the most popular video game there has ever been.
For those who aren't familiar with Super Mario -- and don't know what thrills you have missed -- he is a bricklayer, as is his brother Luigi, who sets out to rescue the Toadstool Princess and must battle his way from one scary place to another, fighting off all sorts of big and little monsters.
Some people are such avid Super Mario players that a medical journal has reported a painful condition known as "Super Mario Thumb," which is caused by hours of pressing the little buttons that make Mario run, leap, crouch and shoot his fireballs. (He is an unusual bricklayer.) Some people scoffed at the medical report. I didn't. My thumb hurt too much for me to laugh.
Anyway, there is a world-famous Mario, although he is an animated creature. And this could work to Mario Cuomo's advantage.
Super Mario is heroic. He assumes a bold stance when standing still. And he never gives up, even when the little prickly creatures -- I forget their names -- land on his head.
So despite what Sen. Gramm says and the "nah, nah, nah, you're name is Mario" jibe from Marlin Fitzwater, Mario is not an unfamiliar name to tens of millions of Americans. And they like him. The Super Mario, I mean. We still don't know whether the New York Mario is super.
And it should be noted that there is no brave, princess-rescuing, monster-fighting Nintendo character named Super George Herbert Walker. Nor is there a character named Super J. Danforth, although a Super J. Danforth would probably be a big seller, especially among those who have a sense of the ridiculous. They might have to change the format, though. When Super J. Danforth leaped and smashed bricks with his head, he might have to be programmed to say: "Mommy, owwie!"
So the Republicans might be wise to drop the Mario name-baiting gambit. There are millions of Americans who think Mario is a noble name. And we have sore thumbs to prove it.