The great tease is ready to pull on his galoshes again

MISSING PERSONS No 42 Mario Cuomo

Heard the latest Mario Cuomo joke? When he found out that Colin Powell had decided not to run for President in 1996, he stepped forward to become the General's running mate.

It has been just over a year since Mr Cuomo was denied a fourth term as Governor of New York by the Republican George Pataki and vanished from America's political landscape. But with the dramatic ditherings of General Powell, the name of Cuomo was suddenly brought back to mind.

This time four years ago it was Mr Cuomo who had the nation in suspense over whether he would make a run for President. The media pundits were virtually begging him to seek the Democratic nomination. So were most Democrats - among all the possible challengers to George Bush, Mr Cuomo looked like the only one with a real chance of winning.

Mr Cuomo, a firm liberal opposed to the death penalty and a supporter of free choice on abortion, was even more of a tease than General Powell. He chartered an aeroplane to take him from Albany, the state capital, to Washington to announce his candidacy. Then he changed his mind. Many still believe that if he had not, he, and not Bill Clinton, would now be in the White House.

As it is, he is not even in the governor's mansion in Albany. A compulsive political operator and also one of this country's few great orators, Mr Cuomo returned to his Manhattan law practice. But he is gradually edging back into the fray. He is the host of two weekend radio shows in New York and a regular on the lecture circuit. He has also written a book, Reason to Believe, a treatise on everything that he believes is wrong with the Republican Revolution of Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In his book, Mr Cuomo warns that under Mr Gingrich, the US is in danger of reversing "60 years of the most human and intelligent progress any government has ever achieved". The Republicans in Congress frame issues by "distilling the bitterest juices from the people's anger, bottling them as legislation and then offering it all back as a magic elixir". In a speech last week, he praised what he called the "sweet strength" of General Powell in forsaking his presidential ambitions.

It was a wise decision, he said, because the general is not accustomed to insubordination and that is what he would have got, from the press and from the Republicans. "Take it from me, they will wee-wee on your shoes," he said of the political pundits. "I wore galoshes for eleven years".

Mr Cuomo predicts that next year will be a race between Mr Clinton and the former Governor of Tennessee Lamar Alexander (not Bob Dole). Mr Clinton, he says, will win.

And what of Mr Cuomo himself? The signs are that his gradual return to the public arena is just beginning. "I've been very quiet for a whole year, because I thought that was appropriate," he noted last week. He says he has not ruled out challenging the Republican Alfonse D'Amato for his New York Senate seat. Meanwhile, CNN is reported to be considering trying him as a co-anchor on its confrontational show Crossfire. Also on CNN's shortlist: Ann Richards of Texas, another exiled Democratic governor with a handy tongue.

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