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Democrats wonder if Cuomo `doth protest too much'

It's become something of a ritual. New York's Gov. Mario M. Cuomo makes a speech in Washington, or he appears on a television news show. He is asked repeatedly, from every conceivable angle, whether he wants to run for the presidency of the United States in 1988.

And the governor always says no. The question is carried further - if the Democratic convention were deadlocked, if the leaders of the party came to him and pleaded, would he turn down a draft?

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Well, no, says the governor. And the headlines go out - Cuomo might accept a draft. His fans grin. His critics groan. The next speech the governor makes, the introducers make sly comments about hoping for a miracle at the convention, regardless of what the governor says he wants. The audience listens closely for hints. Reporters look at one another knowingly and say, ``There's a man that wants the presidency.''

The fuss over Mario Cuomo is on again. It will die down after a bit. People will pay more attention to declared presidential candidates. But there will always be an eye cast toward Cuomo. Who is he tilting toward? What actually did the chairman of the Democratic National Committee say to him about a draft? What were his reasons for visiting the Soviet Union last month, and why is he sounding off on national and global issues?

In a speech before the New York State Industrial Cooperation Council yesterday, the governor talked about the US economic situation and the global economy. It is a favorite topic of his, and one that leads some observers to believe that he is positioning himself for a run.

In his address, Cuomo makes frequent criticisms of the seven years of the Reagan administration. He champions the idea of a national commission on the economy, to advise the next administration - ``whether that be President Dole ... or Bush or Dukakis or Jackson or whoever.'' Cuomo says he doesn't have all the answers, but he underscores some themes: realism on the part of all Americans; cooperation of labor, business, and the government; a more active federal role in the US economy.

The audience seizes on the ``whoever.'' Felix Rohatyn, a Wall Street financier with a wide following in the Democratic Party, says jokingly he hopes ``Governor Whoever'' might be the one doing some of the things suggested in the speech.

There are some in the Democratic Party who would like to see Cuomo run. He is considered progressive and pragmatic, with both a philosophical and intellectual bent.

The current spate of interest in Cuomo began when New York Magazine published a piece investigating charges that the governor has something to hide in his family background. The magazine concluded that the evidence was pretty flimsy.

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Next came a report that candidate Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was seeking Cuomo's support, but that Cuomo was not endorsing anyone. Not exactly earth-shattering news. But then Cuomo praised a candidate, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, and suddenly political observers were thrown off balance. Was this an endorsement? Was Cuomo unhappy with Dukakis? Denials came from all camps.

The Democratic Party's most widely traveled and listened to noncandidate appeared on an NBC News broadcast last week and again said he would make a 1988 presidential bid if he was told it was his ``obligation'' to run. He then quieted rumors on another news broadcast several days later by saying that there will not be a draft at the 1988 Democratic national convention.

But Cuomo raised still more speculation early this week when he said at a news conference that he would no longer talk about his presidential potential. But he added that Paul Kirk, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had told him not to make a ``Shermanesque,'' referring to William Tecumseh Sherman's 1884 statement to the Republican Party convention that ``I will not accept if nominated. I will not serve if elected.''

Denials again. Mr. Kirk said he has not talked to Cuomo about a possible draft but had said that a Sherman-like statement was unnecessary. Later Cuomo said he had not meant to imply that Kirk wanted him to keep his options open.

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