US Mid-Term Elections: Cuomo wilts in face of the youth factor

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The Independent Online
GOVERNOR Mario Cuomo has, perhaps, the finest rhetorical skills of any politician in the United States. He is at his best, as he was on Wednesday night, talking about growing up in New York, proclaiming it as still 'the most popular magnet' for the world's repressed peoples, and so much preferable to Los Angeles, 'where there's no there, there'.

Mr Cuomo is a much more accomplished speaker than President Bill Clinton, who shared the same rostrum. Try as he might, the President could not summon up the fine cadences, or even the jokes of Mr Cuomo. At the end of the evening one wondered why Mr Cuomo had never made it to the White House.

It is open to question why Mr Cuomo, who is in a desperately close race for a fourth, four-year term as the Democratic governor, would want to have Mr Clinton on his platform. It is a maxim of American politics that nothing fails like Democratic success in a presidential election. If you are a Democrat and seeking re-election, as is Mr Cuomo, it might have seemed better to look for endorsements elsewhere. But, as Mr Cuomo says about the fight, 'When it's close you don't leave anything out'. And that means not even support from a precarious president.

The visit by Mr Clinton netted the governor dollars 2.5m ( pounds 1.6m) in funds. Whether it altered the governor's chances in the polls on 8 November is anybody's guess. At 62, Mr Cuomo, a towering national figure who recently turned down Mr Clinton's offer of life-long tenure on the US Supreme Court, has been battling up to 10 points behind a state senator, George Pataki. He is 49 and an upstart conservative Republican from farming country on the Hudson river.

The race is a key one in the mid-term elections because, like so many other races this year, it pits an older, long- serving Democrat against a younger, relatively unknown, Republican.

If New York's voters dump Mr Cuomo, they could set the state on a path of radical changes towards lower taxes, less government, less welfare payments and a reinstated death penalty.

They would be sending a message, possibly along with other big states, such as California, Texas and Florida, not only about the public mood of cynicism concerning established politicians, but also about the fragility of Mr Clinton's own prospects for re- election in 1996.

On the other hand, if Mr Cuomo wins, he will go into the history books. By serving out a fourth four-year term, he will have been in office longer than any governor since George Clinton, the state's first, who held the seat for 21 years in the late 1700s. Mr Cuomo has already equalled the modern-age record of the state's Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller. That is one of his problems.

Older incumbent Democrats, such as Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, are in trouble. Mr Cuomo, like Mr Kennedy, looks exhausted. He jokes about the enormous bags under his eyes and his craggy face. To many, he has overstayed his welcome. The swing voters who helped to put him in four years ago Italian-American Catholics in the outer boroughs - have been telling him: 'You're tired and we're tired of you.'

His Republican rival by contrast is good-looking, sprightly and full of energy. At 6ft 5in, he has a lanky Jimmy Stewart gait and a boyish face. His story, that he is just a Tom Sawyer farm boy from upstate is hardly relevant. He now inhabits a 25- room, 14-fireplace Victorian mansion, after making millions as a venture capitalist. A big chunk of the 'family farm' has, in fact, been sold off to a developer. But the image of a hard-working, soil- tilling American, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, is the one that has stuck. It has gained him a lead over Mr Cuomo.

There is little else to say about Mr Pataki, who is of Hungarian stock. He has a largely unnoticed record in the state senate in Albany, and, unlike Mr Cuomo, apparently has few principled stands. A devout Catholic, he once opposed abortion. Now he is pro-choice, as long as the government doesn't pay for the operation. He has wavered on banning assault weapons.

A Cuomo aide muttered: 'George Pataki thinks taking positions on important issues is like selecting a daily special from a lunch menu. With the number of times he changes his mind, he's a waiter's worst nightmare.'

An old-style liberal, Mr Cuomo has always been pro- choice and against assault guns. On crime issues, both talk tough, as any US politician must today. Mr Cuomo, particularly, likes to point out that he has built more prisons than all the New York governors before him combined.

But the two candidates part on the death penalty. Mr Pataki is for and Mr Cuomo is against. This is Mr Cuomo's second big problem. New Yorkers, fed up with crime - even though figures are falling - favour the death penalty by a three-to-one margin.

Normally, Mr Cuomo's political viewpoint would place the minority vote - blacks and Jews - in his camp. But not this time. His disdain last year for the failed re-election bid of David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor, cost him black votes. So did his cosy relationship with the new mayor, a Republican, Rudy Guiliani. The Jewish vote is split. Many prefer Mr Pataki's tougher talk on crime.

In the end, coat-tails may actually be a factor. Mr Pataki is a creation of New York's vulgar Republican US Senator, Alfonse D'Amato, who, although he is popular, is well-known for staying in favour by doing favours.

That cannot be said of Mr Cuomo or of Mr Clinton. New Yorkers, being well-schooled in recognising sleight of hand, may choose again the caring, liberal alternative - just for another four years.

(Photographs omitted)