NEW YORK -- Tonight in Madison Square Garden, an event that many liberal Democrats have been awaiting for eight years will finally come to pass -- another major speech to a Democratic National Convention by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, who so electrified the party in San Francisco in 1984.
The circumstances, however, are quite different from what Cuomo-lovers had hoped for. They wanted him to address the convention this year as the Democratic nominee. Instead, he will put the name of another man -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas -- in nomination to be the party's 1992 standard-bearer.
Mr. Cuomo, who insisted all year that he did not intend to run, then broke the hearts of his loyalists by going to the edge of a candidacy before pulling back again, still basks in the hazy glow of what-might-have-been. His fans like to believe that had he run, he would be listening to someone placing his name in nomination tonight. But it ain't necessarily so.
There was no certainty, for one thing, that the New York governor's liberal oratory and positions would have played as well during the 1992 primary obstacle course that Mr. Clinton navigated as they did at that friendly convention in San Francisco. Nor was it certain that the notoriously thin-skinned New Yorker would have been able to handle the slings and arrows half as well as Mr. Clinton managed.
In any event, it is quite a different convention and quite a different role that Mr. Cuomo will face tonight. This party gathering, in delegates and theme, reflects the moderation of Mr. Clinton, not the somewhat faded liberalism of then-Vice President Walter F. Mondale, the nominee of the 1984 convention at which Mr. Cuomo delivered his rousing keynote speech extolling "the family of America."
Also, Mr. Cuomo's mission then was to paint a verbal landscape of what the party stood for and where it should go. Tonight, his task will be to sing the praises of a fellow Democrat with whom he has had personal as well as philosophical differences in recent years. Mr. Cuomo said during the New York primary in April that he was willing to forgive and forget Mr. Clinton's earlier reported ethnic slur -- that Mr. Cuomo looked like a member of the Mafia -- but there have been other touchy incidents as well.
The New York governor has been cool to the Democratic Leadership Conference, which Mr. Clinton headed at the time he entered the 1992 presidential race, in its efforts to move the party away from the traditional New Deal liberalism to which Mr. Cuomo remains loyal.
In the New York primary in April, Mr. Cuomo praised both Mr. Clinton and his remaining active rival for the Democratic nomination, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, but endorsed neither. But afterward, Mr. Cuomo expressed strong support for the Arkansan and conferred with him about ways to strengthen his candidacy.
Out of those talks came a plan whereby the prospective nominee would present an agenda for action to the Democratic leadership in Congress, with the objective of getting its approval so he could go to the country and say what he would be able to achieve in his first 100 days in the White House.
Mr. Cuomo disclosed the strategy and seemed to be taking credit for it, to the annoyance of some Clinton advisers. But Mr. Clinton said he thought it a good idea and didn't care who got credit for it. Since then, however, Mr. Clinton has lagged in presenting such an agenda to Congress, amid speculation that he did not want to indicate too close an association with a political body in such disrepute these days.
When Mr. Clinton turned his attention to selection of a running mate, Mr. Cuomo made clear at the outset that he was not interested. Nevertheless, reports persisted that the prospective presidential nominee wanted to offer the vice-presidential nomination to him anyway. But Mr. Cuomo had not submitted the personal and financial information requested of the other potential running mates, and the idea of taking one last run at the New York governor was dropped.
Mr. Cuomo originally said he didn't want to address the convention but finally yielded to requests from the Clinton camp, which was bent on demonstrating party unity. Clinton aides say that Mr. Cuomo has not and will not submit his speech for approval.
Although he clearly has some differences with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Cuomo is expected to play the good soldier in his speech nominating Mr. Clinton, praising him as the party's worthy new leader.
And if some of the Cuomo liberal message is muted, the Clinton strategists hope the old Cuomo passion will be there to fire up the troops behind the two younger men whose nominations may relegate Mario Cuomo to elder statesman in the party many believe he still would like to lead.