NEW YORK — HE turned down a Supreme Court nomination.
At one point, it was only considered a matter of time until the eloquent liberal keynote speaker at the 1984 Democratic convention ran for United States president.
Now, Mario Cuomo is trailing in his bid for a fourth term as New York's governor. Recent polls show this prominent Democrat running behind a virtually unknown Republican, state Sen. George Pataki.
The governor's predicament is causing political angst among the nation's Democrats. President Clinton traveled to Harlem last Sunday to implore black voters to cast their votes for a man Mr. Clinton calls ``the heart'' of the Democratic Party. Fund-raisers are planned by Hollywood actors. On Oct. 19, Clinton will return to try to help the governor raise more money.
Despite this help from the Democratic faithful, public opinion surveys indicate the governor is fighting the ``ABC'' factor (Anybody But Cuomo). Among registered voters, Senator Pataki leads Governor Cuomo by 44.3 percent to 37.5 percent, with 15.1 percent undecided (the other 3.1 percent going for other candidates), according to a poll released Monday by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The undecided voters are weighted toward Pataki. Pataki's lead is slightly smaller among likely voters. Most of his support is the result of negative views about Cuomo, whose job approval rating in the latest poll has continued to slip.
Yet Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute, says it is still early in the campaign - perhaps only the ``third inning.'' He adds: ``I suspect in October it will get pretty rough.''
The rough stuff may be already beginning. The Cuomo campaign has started to air ``comparative'' commercials, prepared by David Garth, the governor's media adviser. One of the ads, for example, criticizes Pataki for not taking a position on the federal crime bill. Says a voice, ``But that's not surprising when you consider that Pataki's political patron, Senator D'Amato, opposed the bill.'' The ad then shows a photo of Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R) of New York holding hands with Pataki as they walked around a fund-raiser together. ``We need a governor who leads, not one who's led around,'' the voice continues.
Pataki has released two ``agenda for change'' reports on welfare and government reform in the state, but his direct jabs at the governor have been relatively modest. The rhetoric level is likely to rise shortly, however, when the two candidates introduce their tax programs.
Taxes have become a big issue in the race, because Pataki has been eager to blame Cuomo for the high taxes Empire State residents pay. In speech after speech, Pataki reminds voters they pay the highest personal taxes in the nation. Pataki was expected to release his plan for reducing personal income taxes yesterday at a noon speech before the Citizens Budget Commission.
PATAKI'S plan will arrive a week before Cuomo himself introduces a broad tax-reduction package of $1.5 billion. Last Monday at a New York Chamber of Commerce News Forum, the governor said his tax cuts may include a refund on the gross-receipts utility tax, which gets passed directly to electric-power users on their monthly bills, a reduction in personal income taxes - except for the rich - and a way to lower the burden of property taxes for people living in districts with high property taxes. The governor also pointed out, however, that if the state's tax revenues decline, there may not be any tax cuts. ``If we can't afford it, we won't do it,'' stated Cuomo.
The tax issue is important in the race, explains Mr. Miringoff. ``Anything that touches on the economy, like taxes, jobs, or development carries weight,'' he adds.
The Republicans believe taxes may be the governor's political soft spot. Only Alaska - with high taxes on the oil companies - has higher taxes. The governor maintains that the state's share of taxes on individuals is relatively modest, ranking the state 22nd. The overall tax burden becomes high when local taxes - such as New York City's income tax - are factored in.
Taxes are an ``influential issue,'' says Jay Severin, a Republican political consultant. He points out that political polls show taxes remaining high on voters' agendas. ``Since so much of the campaign is a contrary vote against Cuomo, if you persuade the people Cuomo is responsible for high taxes, you automatically become the alternative,'' says Mr. Severin.
It is likely to be an ongoing theme of the Pataki campaign. At a press conference on Tuesday, Elizabeth McCaughey, Pataki's running mate for lieutenant governor, issued a more detailed criticism of the effect of New York's taxes on job growth. Using the latest Census Bureau statistics, she claimed New Yorkers paid 15.8 percent for state and local taxes, compared with a national average of 11.6 percent. At the same time, the state ranked 47th in job growth.
``The lesson here is that the Cuomo administration's tax-and-spend policies will doom New York to lose the jobs' race,'' stated Ms. McCaughey. This is the message the Republicans are likely to hammer on as the campaign continues.