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Cuomo's Strength - an Illusion

AS it was four years ago, the political community is all aflutter over Mario Cuomo's impending decision to run or not to run. Many politicians and analysts in both parties seem convinced that New York's Democratic governor would be his party's strongest presidential nominee, should he decide to make the race.Just what these judgments are based on is not at all clear, however. Perhaps it's simply the fact, noted at the beginning of virtually every assessment of Cuomo-as-candidate, that he is a very gifted public speaker. But Mario Cuomo has been giving good speeches throughout his nine years as governor, including his memorable keynote address to the 1984 Democratic national convention - and nonetheless he displays an impressive array of political weaknesses. It needs to be remembered that, with the exception of his 1986 gubernatorial race, Cuomo has not run well in his previous campaigns for public office. For instance, he lost his bid in 1977 to become the New York City mayoralty nominee, to Edward Koch. He subsequently nipped Koch for the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, but only after the mayor had ridiculed suburban and upstate voters in a highly publicized Playboy interview. In that year's general election, Cuomo edged out Republican neophyte L ew Lehrman by 180,000 votes, out of more than 5 million cast. In his 1990 reelection bid, Cuomo got only 53 percent of the vote - even though his Republican opponent was a political unknown who ran a singularly inept campaign. When Michael Dukakis won the Democratic nomination four years ago, his claim to having presided over a "Massachusetts miracle" seemed plausible to many. But with the New York budget likely to show $1 billion in red ink at the end of this fiscal year, even after a recent round of tax increases, Cuomo can hardly point to his record as an economic success story. Democrats believe that softness in the national economy gives them their best opening in 1992. But a Cuomo candidacy would be vulnerable to second guesses on economic management. Dukakis was relatively popular back home when he ran for president. Every Bush-Dukakis trial heat in polls taken in Massachusetts during the campaign showed the governor leading; and in the November balloting he carried the state by an eight percentage point margin. In striking contrast, when a poll in New York state by Mason Dixon Opinion Research (Oct. 5-19, 1991), done independently of any party or candidate, posed a Cuomo/Bush race and asked "if the 1992 election were held today, who would you vote f or," 55 percent picked Bush, only 31 percent their incumbent governor. Cuomo is the champion of his party's liberal wing - but in Campaign '92, that's a dubious distinction. The CBS News/New York Times poll of Oct. 15-18 found, for instance, that just 19 percent of those who described themselves as likely to vote in a Democratic presidential primary next year wanted the party to nominate a "liberal," while 38 percent favored a moderate," and 25 percent a "conservative." These labels are vague, of course, but the distribution seems clearly to capture the national mood. The CBS/NYT poll of November 1987 found 22 percent of the registered voters across the country with a favorable opinion of Cuomo, 11 percent not favorable, and 67 percent were undecided or hadn't heard enough. Four years later, in the CBS/NYT poll completed in mid-October, the figures were essentially unchanged: 21 percent favorable, 14 percent unfavorable, 64 percent undecided or wanting to know more. There is simply no evidence that Cuomo has captured the public's imagination. It's possible, of course, that Cuomo will decide to run, will win his party's nomination, and then will best George Bush next November. But nothing in the record to date establishes him as "the man to beat."

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