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Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2002 / 3 Tishrei, 5763

Michael Barone

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An unusual step



Why did Andrew Cuomo drop out of the race for governor of New York?

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Andrew Cuomo dropped out of the race for governor of New York on Tuesday, just one week before the Democratic primary. It was an unusual step. Cuomo had been campaigning for more than a year and had raised millions of dollars, and he said he had $3 million available for the last week of advertising. True, he was behind in the polls-trailing his Democratic rival, state Controller Carl McCall, by a 53 to 31 percent margin in a Quinnipiac University poll taken between August 26 and September 1-and the New York Times endorsed McCall. But primaries are much more volatile than general elections, in which most voters are moored to candidates because of party preference. Very often 20 percent of primary voters change their minds in the last week. So why didn't Cuomo play it out, instead of giving up all chance of winning?

For the reasons stated. Cuomo said he was dropping out because the only way he could prevail was by running a negative campaign against McCall-and he just wouldn't do that. That shouldn't be taken quite literally: With his acerbic tongue, Cuomo is always capable of going negative. But there is a reason going negative could be counterproductive. Going negative against a black candidate-McCall will be the first black Democratic nominee for governor-could arouse negative feelings among black voters, who make up about one quarter of a 51 percent Democratic majority, and among some nonblack voters who might find such an attack distasteful. In the 2001 mayoral race, many Latino voters and some others evidently resented the way Democratic primary winner Mark Green attacked opponent Fernando Ferrer, who is of Puerto Rican background; Republican Michael Bloomberg carried the Latino vote in the general election. It's hard for a white Democratic politician to run against a black or Latino in a primary without alienating voters he will need in the general election.

Because he wants to be politically viable in 2006. A primary loss or a primary victory followed by a weak showing in the general election would destroy Cuomo's chances to run for governor in 2006. Both he and McCall are trailing far behind incumbent Republican George Pataki, who has had sky-high job ratings since September 11; Pataki has also benefited from gratitude from hospital worker union leaders for funneling money into hospitals and from landing a new high-tech center near Albany. In polls Pataki leads among Latino voters, runs nearly even in New York City, and runs far ahead in the suburbs and upstate. So Cuomo's withdrawal is a sign he decided the nomination wasn't worth having. McCall is 66 and, if he loses by a wide margin, will not be a contender in 2006. The likely Democratic nominee then is state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has been getting great gobs of publicity by subpoenaing records from Wall Street firms. But Cuomo's withdrawal allows him to think-though I suspect wrongly-that he could still be a contender.

To accommodate the Clintons. Present at Cuomo's withdrawal statement was Chappaqua, N.Y., resident Bill Clinton. According to news reports, he had been among those urging Cuomo to withdraw. Why should he care? Because the Cuomo candidacy put Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in an uncomfortable position. She was under pressure from black politicians to endorse McCall, as her senior colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer, did. But she surely did not want to come out against Cuomo, who served the Clinton administration loyally and vigorously for eight years. And who is married to a Kennedy. Since 1992, the Clintons always have always been careful to court the Kennedys and the Cuomos-the liberals whose support could help and whose opposition could injure them most, as Edward Kennedy's opposition injured Jimmy Carter. But the pressure was growing uncomfortable. Senator Clinton chose to march with McCall, but not with Cuomo, at Monday's West Indian American Day Carnival Parade in Brooklyn. Cuomo evidently took the hint. Some political royal families are more royal than others.

As a concession to reality. Cuomo's candidacy was really over last spring when he quipped to an upstate audience that George Pataki simply "held the leader's coat" when he stood beside Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on and after September 11. This was not at all the way most voters saw it, and it was characteristic of Cuomo's political weaknesses-overaggressiveness, acerbity, indiscipline. However much he may still cling to his hopes for 2006, from that moment on it was clear that this generation's Cuomo was not going to be governor of New York. So why not just get it over with a week early?

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2002, Michael Barone