Waiting for Mario: Will He Save the Democrats? : Politics: The party should be careful when it wishes for Gov. Cuomo to enter the presidential race--because it just might get him.

Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984. He is host of Fox Television's "Off the Record."

Considering press reports of the nation's capital collectively holding its breath as Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York decides whether to run for President, you would think the Democratic Party couldn't wait to crown the Big Man.

But listen carefully, and you will hear growing dissent. Smart politicians of both parties realize the press has gone overboard again--that an attractive potential presidential candidate has (prior to running, of course) been transformed into a Mythic Figure. This Mario Myth has at least five questionable elements:

Myth 1: Every Democrat is clamoring for Cuomo as the one chance to unite the party in '92.

Myth 2: Cuomo enters, the nomination is his.

Myth 3: The paramount liberal replaces the Midwestern pretender to the throne.

Myth 4: His stature, experience and brilliance place him above the crowd.

Myth 5: He is the one to take the fight to the Republicans.

Like most myths, these are convincing and, at times, comforting. Unfortunately, they are also wrong. From the top:

Myth 1: The Cuomo consensus.

The clamor for Cuomo from the usual suspects--liberals, Democratic National Committee officials and the Eastern media--is real and loud. As the economy worsens and Bush's popularity plummets to human levels, the sense of yet another chance at the presidency slipping through Democratic fingers increases the cries. Desperate times produce desperate hopes.

However, this roar is muffling the distress signals from the South and West. Specifically, the governors, senators and congressmen fighting for reelection are scared to death of another Northeast liberal at the top of the ticket.

These politicians, in guarded, off-the-record conversations, say another Northeast liberal nominee is a not only a sure loser in the 60%-40% range, but will devastate Democrats on tickets below.

For example, ask Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia whether he would rather have Cuomo or Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas as the nominee; or ask Sen. Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado if he wouldn't rather have Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Their answers might surprise the consensus.

Myth 2: The brief nomination fight.

The truth is just the opposite. The current Democratic field, minus Cuomo, is more likely to produce a quick nominee. Because of lack of money and national stature, possibly three, of these candidates will survive the New Hampshire primary. Then, quickly, a one-on-one battle will develop. One candidate will pull ahead and the other will simply run out of money. With the March 17 Illinois primary, the Democratic Party will probably have its candidate.

A Cuomo candidacy changes this scenario. The field will again be quickly weeded out. By the end of the New Hampshire primary, which Cuomo should win, only two will remain: Cuomo and whoever finishes second as the Anybody-But-Cuomo candidate. However, instead of a quick ending and the emergence of a nominee, the Anybody-But-Cuomo candidate will be invigorated. He will be well funded by opponents of a Cuomo candidacy. Given the Michael S. Dukakis-Jesse Jackson delegate compromise providing proportional representation to primary and caucus winners, this candidate can stay close to Cuomo through the spring.

For example, Illinois chooses 164 delegates on primary day. Even if Cuomo wins the state with 60%, he would only win 90-95 delegates while the Anybody-But-Cuomo candidate would get 70. Cuomo's margin would be a mere 20-25 delegates. This means the nominating battle could go right up to the convention.

Myth 3: Cuomo destroys Harkin.

It is true that, in the New Hampshire primary, Cuomo will take more votes from Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa than any other candidate. Harkin recognizes this. An aggressive politician, he will not quietly throw in the towel. Harkin will realize his greatest and most immediate threat is Cuomo, and won't hesitate to turn his attack from Bush to the New York governor.

Myth 4: Cuomo is best qualified.

Cuomo's temperament and style, ideal for lobbing verbal assaults from the box seats, may fit badly in the superheated arena of a presidential campaign.

Cuomo's history of temperamental outbursts at the press is legendary in New York. His tendency to think out loud is also well known. While comments about giving Saddam Hussein a little land and a little oil to avoid war can be dismissed as musings by a governor, they are deadly for a presidential campaign.

Discipline, a balanced temperament and a consistent, oft-repeated message are essential for a successful presidential campaign. No one doubts the governor is a tough political infighter. But the jury is still out on whether he fits the entire bill.

Compounding the problem is that no one in recent history will enter a race with greater expectations than Cuomo. He will be expected to give great speeches everyday. (He won't.) He will be expected to avoid mistakes. (He won't.) He will be expected to act and look and be "presidential" all the time. (He won't.)

The result: When he makes mistakes, doesn't make a great speech and acts unpresidential, the press and perhaps primary voters will jump all over him.

Myth 5: Cuomo is the best opponent to Bush.

Republicans say they would love to run against Cuomo. Many Democrats instinctively see this as a ploy. But there is a grain of truth to what the Republicans say. Remember, the Republicans have already said publicly they will run on crime, quotas and Kuwait.

Cuomo's record in New York--deficits, crime, urban blight--will be open season for the GOP. New York, both image and reality, will give the Republicans an enormous amount of ammunition.

In 1992, the Democratic Party desperately needs an outsider, a candidate who can take advantage of the anti-Establishment mood raging in the country. That ain't Cuomo. Cuomo is an insider. He is a career politician who has worked his way up in big-city politics and stayed around the national scene a long time. Interesting? Yes. An outsider? No.

In reality, there are at least two or three candidates--Clinton, Kerrey, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia--already in the field who may be in a better position to take on Bush. What the Democrats may need is a lesser-known candidate with a cleaner slate--someone who can credibly claim the outsider, anti-Establishment mantle.

Puncturing myths about a Cuomo candidacy is not the same as arguing against it. Cuomo's entry into the race will set off a debate between the dominant liberal wing of the party and the new generational, more moderate wing. This debate has been put off too long. It should happen. Sure a Harkin-Clinton battle would engage the debate, but no one will crystallize it more than Mario vs. a moderate newcomer.

Having said all this, if the governor does answer Democratic Chairman Ronald H. Brown's request for an answer by Nov. 5, and opts to run for the Democratic nomination, he will probably get it. The crowded field of candidates will probably split up enough votes in the early primaries to allow the well-funded, well-known New Yorker to win his party's nod. But it will be a bruising contest.

Presidential campaigns tend to bring mythic figures to earth. They are a humbling experience, revealing flaws and exhibiting personalities. While Cuomo may lose his mythic wrappings, he may also prove to be the best candidate. If Cuomo is nominated, Bush will face the toughest opponent of his career. Mario may be liberal but he ain't Dukakis. Bush may not be beaten, but he will be bloodied.

Certainly Cuomo understands, far better than his friends in the press, how long and rugged the road to the White House is. Which is why, I think, he pauses now.

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