Now for the Democrats' Campaign

December 24, 1991

When New York Gov. Mario Cuomo announced he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Michael Dukakis said, "I'm not surprised at his decision. Had I been working on my fourth deficit in a row in 1987, I wouldn't have done it." A former Democratic state chairman from Georgia, John Henry Anderson, was less diplomatic. "For once in his life, Cuomo did something right. He was going to get the hell beat out of him and send the Democrats to the cleaners again."

Whether Governor Cuomo's decision was "right" is debatable; xTC the process he engaged in, though, was anything but right. It was wrong for his own reputation. He became a joke, advising would-be supporters to stand by, hiring an airplane, preparing an entrance-fee check, then bowing out 90 minutes before the deadline.

And it was wrong for his party. The party's national chairman and many other loyal Democrats urged Governor Cuomo repeatedly to make up his mind by early last month. He said he would. It took him 70 days, a time in which the media and the public paid more attention to Governor Cuomo's indecision than to the other Democratic candidates, who lost a valuable chance in those 70 days to gain more nationwide attention. The leading candidates are three men little known to the country at large. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska have got a lot of campaigning to do if they are to become household names and gain voter preference when a president is chosen.

One presumed advantage these three men had over Governor Cuomo is that they come from states west of the Mississippi River. The population center of the nation lies on that side of that great river, and so does the political center of gravity. Only one president since World War II has come from the "old America" that Governor Cuomo represents -- Massachusetts' John F. Kennedy, 31 years ago. Rightly or wrongly, the nation no longer considers problem-solving or constituent-serving in a New York -- or even an Ohio or Illinois -- the best preparation for national leadership.

The West and South are the states the Democrats most need to regain the presidency in the electoral college. A Western candidate is not an automatic ticket to victory, though. For example, George McGovern of South Dakota was buried in a 1972 landslide. Senator Harkin and, to a lesser degree, Senator Kerrey, carry much liberal "McGovernite" baggage. That is not helpful in general elections nor in Southern and Western primaries, but elsewhere it is an advantage. The two senators may be most helped by a Cuomo non-candidacy.

Yet pollsters and pundits aren't sure. The voters have to speak. Now that Governor Cuomo is no longer the center of attention, the voters can start listening, learning and making up their minds about the rest of the Democratic field.

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