Cuomo Calls for 'More Just Society' in Low-Key Speech

Times Staff Writers

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the subject of intense presidential speculation within the Democratic Party, called Wednesday night in Los Angeles for a "better, freer, more prosperous, more just society in the third century of the U.S. Constitution."

In a speech at the 15th anniversary of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, Cuomo touched on many of the themes that have marked his Administration in New York. He called for more jobs for those who are able to work, for cleaner air and water and for "a new emphasis on the basic values that have over the years made the American people their very best: honesty, courage, responsibility, dignity, a concern for one another . . . a sense of family."

Cuomo was as deliberately low key in Los Angeles as a potential presidential candidate can be. But in two short press conferences before his speech, he clearly relished the curiosity over his political future.

Asked if he had the "fire in the belly" to run for President, Cuomo winked and said in his rich New York accent, "Show me a man with fire in his belly and I'll put seltzer water in his mouth."

At another point, he deflected yet another question about whether or not he intended to seek the presidency by saying, "The big question you have to decide is whether you ought to be President." Then he changed the subject.

Announcement at End of Month

In an interview on the flight out, Cuomo said he will announce by the end of the month whether he will allow planning for a possible presidential race to proceed.

The governor has consulted in recent weeks with various Democratic strategists and party leaders, many of whom, he said, have urged him to run for President. Still, he indicated in the Wednesday interview that he is not entirely sure he wants to make the race.

Unlike the 1982 New York governor's race, which he entered decisively and won despite being an underdog, Cuomo is treating the 1988 presidential race more gingerly. He noted in the interview that there are major unanswered questions of strategy and personal commitment.

"I've still not made up my mind," Cuomo said.

In a recent California Poll, Cuomo was the third choice for President among Democrats, with the support of 48% of them. Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who will announce his candidacy in April, was the choice of 66% of the California Democrats in that survey, and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who has said he will not run, was second with 54%.

Delegates' Straw Poll

A Los Angeles Times straw poll of delegates to the recent state Democratic convention found Cuomo the first choice of those activists, with Hart a close second. However, when asked who they thought would win in their area, the delegates named Hart by a margin of 2 to 1.

In his speech Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, Cuomo praised both the Center for Law in the Public Interest and the law itself for being "an active force to ensure that the American proposition, the promise of equality, liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness is extended to every American."

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