The impact of Cuomo's no-go announcement On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 23, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- NOW THAT Gov. Mario Cuomo has ended his 70-day agonizing and announced he will not be a presidential candidate in 1992, each of the other Democratic hopefuls can get on with his business of telling the voters who he is and why he is the party's bests President Bush next November.

Cuomo's no-go decision is probably best appreciated by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose candidacy is based on the same liberal, blue-collar constituency that would have been the heart of a Cuomo candidacy.

Harkin grew increasingly irritated at all the media attention Cuomo was attracting during his drawn-out imitation of Hamlet, and now he can pursue his courtship of that constituency without looking over his shoulder. Cuomo in his press conference in Albany seemed to be categorical about not trying to get into the race later, either.

The other five declared candidates also have cause to breathe a sigh of relief, if only because their chances of having their positions listened to are greatly enhanced.

In New Hampshire, Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts could be the major beneficiary of Cuomo's decision. His diligent if plodding campaigning in the state most of this year is beginning to reflect in the polls there, and he may now have at least a fighting chance to pull a surprise in the nation's first 1992 primary.

In a poll for the Boston Globe published on Dec. 9, Tsongas ran even with Cuomo at 15 percent each as the choice of registered Democrats likely to vote in the Feb. 18 primary, and 51 percent said they thought favorably of him, compared to 44 percent for Cuomo.

None of the other Democratic hopefuls came close, but they are not as well known as Tsongas is in New Hampshire, where many former Massachusetts citizens now reside.

Cuomo's no-go also provides encouragement for Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who has appeared to be moving to the head of the pack, judging from the way the others have been targeting his proposals for criticism, as in the recent candidates' nationally televised debate over the NBC network.

As for Cuomo, it remains to be seen whether his long march up bTC the hill only to march down again will leave lasting political scars.

The conventional wisdom, expressed by Republican candidate Pat Buchanan, that Cuomo would look like a fool if in the end he decided not to run, is likely to keep him as the brunt of jokes on the late-night television talk shows, at least for a time.

Once a political figure is saddled with a reputation, in this case of indecisiveness, it's hard for him to shake it. Just ask George Romney about his remark that he was "brainwashed" by the generals in Vietnam in 1967.

On the other hand, Cuomo did say all along that he did not feel he could in good conscience "abandon" the people of New York who elected him governor while the state was locked in a major budget crisis, and in the end he lived up to his commitment to them.

It "would be enormously ungrateful" toward New York voters, he observed, for him even to say he was disappointed at not being able to run for president.

If there was one puzzling aspect to Cuomo's announcement, it was his acknowledgment that he was taking himself out of consideration for 1992 not just for the New Hampshire primary but for the rest of the year because Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown had asked him to get in or stay out for good by Friday's deadline for filing in New Hampshire.

Brown has long plugged for an early closing of the field and a quick decision on a nominee in the primaries, to enable the winner and the party to concentrate well before the Democratic convention in July on taking the fight to President Bush.

Cuomo also scoffed at the notion of a draft, saying the nominee should be chosen in the primaries and would be. And he dodged a question about a presidential candidacy in 1996, saying it was "an eon away, an eon and a quarter."

He did not promise, though, as Richard Nixon did in 1962 after losing the governorship of California, that the press would not have Mario Cuomo to kick around anymore. But for 1992, at least, he has taken himself out of the picture about as categorically as possible -- just when it begins to look as if the Democratic presidential nomination may be worth having.

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