The Cuomo political enigma deepens in wake of his withdrawal from race

December 22, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- All the pieces were in place for what promised to be one of the most formidable presidential campaigns of this or any year. All the pieces, that is, except one: the candidate.

When Gov. Mario M. Cuomo announced Friday that he would skip the 1992 Democratic race, he left many politicians shocked and confused.

"I'm a little breathless," confessed Paul Tully, the Democratic Party's political director. "I'll be hard put to figure it out."

If insiders were finding it tough to explain why a clearly ambitious politician would pass up an opportunity to become his party's presidential nominee, their head-scratching only mirrored that of average voters.

"Many of them will have doubts for a long time as to what happened," Mr. Cuomo acknowledged, referring to the people in New Hampshire and, presumably, every other state.

Many of those who have worked with the New York governor over the years say he should be taken at his word.

"He was extremely straightforward about this for two months. If you took him literally, no one should be surprised," said Robert Shrum, a Democratic speech writer and media consultant who was one of the first people Mr. Cuomo talked to when he considered running for president in 1987 and again this fall.

"He decided that when the job he held needed to be filled on a full-time basis, he was going to do that job. I don't think there's more to it," Mr. Shrum said.

In fact, Mr. Cuomo was anything but straightforward in his very public show of decision-making, which ran for 10 weeks.

He said from the outset that his potential candidacy would hinge on his ability to close the state's budget gap. What he did not say was that the budget has become an annual agony in New York state that has dragged on into the summer in recent years.

At one point, he said he might have to resign as governor if he ran for president. Then he took it back.

At another point, he proposed a plan to close a projected $4 billion gap in next year's budget that would have avoided another round of negotiations next spring, the peak of the primary season.

Finally, he threatened to run anyway if he concluded Republican legislators were holding the budget deal hostage to his presidential ambitions.

In other words, if he was really serious about the budget as a

roadblock, was he ever truly serious about running? There was ** "nothing, really, standing in the way, other than the budget problem," he said after dropping his bombshell Friday.

"It would have been nice to run for president," he maintained.

Some Democrats believe otherwise. When it comes to public life, they say, the part Mr. Cuomo likes least is running for office. And in all of American politics there is nothing remotely as unpleasant as the mind-numbing grind of a presidential campaign.

Over the last two months, Mr. Cuomo has taken a crash course in modern presidential politics, which he calls "a crude, ineffective process." Among the questions he reviewed: "What price do you have to pay? What does it mean to your family? What capacity do you need? What do you have to know? What do you have to be able to do?"

He says he disposed of those questions "very, very easily. . . . Everything but the budget is relatively easy to handle."

This from a political homebody who, during his first 3,200 days in office spent no more than 40 nights away from the governor's mansion in Albany. This from a man who, despite a well-deserved reputation for electrifying public oratory, does not always seem at home on the campaign trail.

"Campaigning is not his natural milieu," observed a Democratic political veteran. "The intellectual, abstract environment is."

Mr. Cuomo's prolonged indecision drastically reduced the amount of time he would have had to run as an active candidate.

But Mr. Cuomo still faced a nomination ordeal that could last until midsummer, forcing him to spend long periods away from his home state.

Casting further doubt on the notion that the budget deadlock was the real reason for his decision is Mr. Cuomo's statement that, even if the budget was resolved next week, he still would not enter the race.

In saying so, he seemed to make Ronald H. Brown, the Democratic national chairman, the scapegoat for his actions, which again dashed the hopes of Democrats who saw him as the party's best hope to unseat George Bush.

Mr. Cuomo implied that it was Mr. Brown who had set Friday as the deadline for a decision. But the governor, who did not inform Mr. Brown in advance of his decision, didn't hesitate to thumb his nose at the party chairman seven weeks earlier by ignoring his plea to get in or out by Election Day in November.

Another theory is that Mr. Cuomo's presidential tease was simply an ego trip that got out of control.

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