Washington — The hoofbeats of the dark horses just grew much louder. The departure of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York from the Democratic presidential campaign has turned Election '88 into a highly unpredictable, exciting, wide-open race.
Exit Mr. Cuomo. Enter a half-dozen Democrats ready to gallop after the front-runner, former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado. Most challengers were in danger of being trampled while Cuomo, a powerful orator and big-state governor, was in the race.
Adding further interest to the Democratic contest has been the GOP's sliding popularity as the Iran-contra affair drags on. (North aide tells of document shredding, Page 2).
Now the Democratic lineup has dramatically changed. Party insiders will take a fresh look at Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
New attention will also focus on two Democrats already running, former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Congressman Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who announces his campaign today in St. Louis.
It was Mr. Hart who had the most to gain, and to lose, by Cuomo's decision. Analysts see it cutting both ways.
On the plus side: Hart gets rid of his toughest opponent. Cuomo might have whipped Hart in Iowa, or New Hampshire, and that could have stopped Hart.
Hart will now be able to delay intensive campaigning for several more months while he gets his campaign into high gear.
Hart will also be able now to tap into New York money, which is important in any Democratic presidential race, and especially vital to Hart, with $1.6 million in leftover debts from 1984.
But there's also a down side.
Instead of two front-runners, Hart and Cuomo, there is now only one, and that could be precarious. Other candidates will be directing fire at Hart. That same sort of political barrage hurt Walter Mondale in 1984.
Cuomo's exit also costs Hart his best foil: Cuomo, the old-fashioned liberal; Hart, the man of new ideas. It was a rerun of Hart-Mondale. Instead, the race is reversed. Hart is suddenly the ``old'' face - up against new candidates who are almost all younger than he is, men whose ideas may seem to represent the new wave of the party just as his own did in 1984.
Cuomo said his decision against a race was ``the best thing for my state ... the best thing for my family [and] the best thing for my party.''
G. Donald Ferree, associate director of the Roper Center, called it a major development, ``almost as if [Vice-President George] Bush had withdrawn from the race.''
Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), suggests that Cuomo did not look forward to criticism that comes to many presidential candidates and their families.
Some experts also suggest that Cuomo may have recognized that his prospects of a presidential victory were not very good. William Schneider, another AEI analyst, notes that the record at the presidential ballot box of Northern Democratic liberals in the past two decades is poor, with three defeats: Hubert H. Humphrey (1968), George McGovern (1972), and Mondale (1984). The only Democratic winner during that period was a Southerner, Jimmy Carter (1976).
A campaign analyst who asked not to be identified said Cuomo's action now helps three people: Senators Biden and Bumpers, and Governor Dukakis. Biden and Bumpers now have a clear field to seek union and liberal support in Iowa. A week later, in New Hampshire, Dukakis should do much better with the field cleared of Cuomo.
Political consultant Greg Schneiders says Cuomo's action makes Iowa ``critical.'' Iowa could eliminate all but two or three Democratic candidates within a week.