Sen. D'Amato weighing a run against Cuomo ON POLITICS



NEW YORK -- Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was at his quipster best here the other night at the annual Republican State Committee dinner. With New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato at his side, Dole was asked what he thought about D'Amato's statement that he may seek the GOP nomination to run against Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo next year.

"I think he'd be an outstanding governor if he decided to run," Dole said. But wouldn't he miss D'Amato in the Senate? "I think he could handle both," Dole replied with his wry grin. "He's used to flying back and forth anyway," he said, referring to the vTC frequency with which "Senator Pothole," the Senate's champion constituency-service member, commutes between Washington and New York.

As much as D'Amato might like to wear both hats, he will have to choose, and he says he will do so this fall. The speculation is that he is waiting to see whether Republican Rudy Giuliani can beat Democratic Mayor David Dinkins this November and thus afford D'Amato a valuable helping hand in a 1994 race against Cuomo.

When D'Amato won re-election last fall, he said that if elected he would not seek public office again. But he has since brushed that aside in what he professes to see as a golden opportunity to be a political giant killer against Cuomo.

If the party can promise him the necessary resources, D'Amato says, there's "better than a 50-50 chance" that he will run. With four years still to go in his Senate term next year, he could return to the Senate if he lost the challenge.

D'Amato candidly says that one condition is the wiping out of his campaign deficit of about $200,000 from his Senate re-election campaign last year. Skeptics make bold to suggest that the conditional talk of a race for governor is no more than a come-on to get the party to bail him out. But GOP State Chairman Bill Powers says the suggestion is "nonsensical" because the amount is "insignificant" for a politician of D'Amato's popularity to raise.

The party certainly seems to be in a position to help out after the other night's dinner, which Powers says grossed at least $700,000 for the state GOP. Not since the days of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller has the state party itself been out of debt. Also, he says, party enrollment has surpassed 3 million, with GOP countywide officials in office in 50 of the state's 62 counties, many elected last fall on the slogan, "Send Mario a Message."

With the state continuing to have major budgetary problems and job losses, the Republicans think 1994 is their opportunity to send Cuomo to the sidelines. About half a dozen stalwarts indicated they were willing to challenge him before D'Amato dropped his tentative bombshell and, many here say, froze the picture until he makes up his mind.

Among those who say they will run are Herb London, who was the Conservative Party nominee in 1990 and won 21 percent of the vote, former state chairmen Pat Barrett and Dick Rosenbaum, Rep. Susan Molinari and her father, former Rep. Guy Molinari, and former state legislator Jon Fossel.

Powers says that if D'Amato wants to run, the party endorsement is his, with fellow conservatives having a firm grip on the party apparatus in most counties. But Rosenbaum, state chairman under Rockefeller and the most moderate of the prospective contenders, vows he will oppose the senator, even if he has to take a circuitous petition route to get on the ballot.

Cuomo after 10 years in the governor's mansion in Albany has collected his share of critics. His approval rating in a Marist College poll in late April was 40.5 percent. Another poll just out for the New York Post and Buffalo News has similar results, with only 30 percent saying they want Cuomo re-elected and 40 percent saying they would consider another candidate. But when matched against specific candidates in both polls, Cuomo always won.

Nevertheless, D'Amato and Powers both insist that Cuomo is ripe for the plucking, especially with President Clinton's erratic start in the White House. They take every effort to paint the two as Siamese twins. "Clinton was a failed governor from a small state," Powers says, picking up on a 1992 George Bush line, "and Cuomo is the failed governor of a large state."

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