The Democrats still long for Mario

THE Democratic Party once again seems headed toward nominating someone it isn't too excited about. Remember the 1984 national convention and the way Mario Cuomo won the hearts of the assembled delegates and Democrats all across the country who heard his rousing speech?

Governor Cuomo was clearly the ``choice'' of that convention, partly because of the New Yorker's charisma but in great part because Democrats everywhere were not too enchanted with Walter Mondale. There was no way, however, that that convention, already locked into nominating Mr. Mondale, could have turned to Mr. Cuomo.

``Next time it will be Cuomo.'' That was what the delegates were saying, not noting that these words implied they had a loser in Mondale and would need someone else ``next time.''

Now it is ``next time,'' and the Democrats seem to be moving toward a nominee who, at least so far, isn't causing too many party members to stand up and cheer. Exit polls in the New York primary showed that more than half of those voting for the Massachusetts governor wished they could have cast their ballots for another Democrat. Support for Michael Dukakis in that primary victory was described as ``soft.'' That's a good word to depict the backing Governor Dukakis is getting all around the United States.

Mr. Dukakis just might become ``Mr. Excitement'' before the campaign is over. But the current prospect is that this competent governor will never score high on the voters' applause meter.

With Dukakis against George Bush, it would be bland against bland. Democrats analyze the economy and say disaster lies on the horizon. But then they look again and acknowledge that the economy is generally perceived as being pretty good - perhaps good enough to elect a Republican once again.

Party strategists are fearful that with two candidates equally unable to arouse the passions, the electorate will once again pick a Republican.

Which brings us again to Cuomo. Despite his frequent assertions of unavailability, he never completely takes himself out.

He says his actions and comments all along have shown his unwillingness to accept a draft. But he is unwilling to issue a statement similar to that of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: ``I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.''

Cuomo's foot dragging would normally have been enough to stop Democrats from knocking at his door and to discourage reporters from probing his position. Continued ``looking to Mario'' indicates how dissatisfied many Democrats are with the way the ticket seems to be shaping up.

It's getting very, very late for a draft to occur. Most observers say it's now an impossibility, given the firm commitment of delegates won through the primaries. But the atmospherics could very well be present at this year's Democratic national convention to produce the ``impossible.'' It is well to remember that the unpredictable is the norm in politics.

The ingredients for a convention draft are these:

No candidate would have enough delegates at the end of the primary process to win on the first ballot.

There would still be this feeling among party leaders and delegates that the process had not come up with the best possible candidate and that, in addition, the likely nominee would lose in the fall.

Democratic officeholders and aspirants to public office all over the US would be expressing their unhappiness over having to run on the presidential ticket apparently emerging.

This last element is already showing up. The Democrats are not just worried about losing the presidential contest again. They are afraid that this time the Republicans will substantially strengthen their ranks in both houses of Congress - as well as scoring a lot of victories in the legislatures and governorships now held by Democrats.

If these anxieties persist, it's the superdelegates, seasoned party leaders not coming from the primaries, who might well be the first to raise the cry for ``someone else.''

Actually, the proposal for having superdelegates stemmed from party dissatisfaction with the presidential nominees selected by regular delegates, beginning with George McGovern. The idea of adding these delegates was to inject maturity and good judgment into the selection process. The superdelegates were supposed to make sure the Democratic nominee was a winner.

So the possibility - faint though it may be - remains for the party to turn to someone not now in contention. If not Cuomo, perhaps a Sam Nunn or Bill Bradley. Both have made it clear they are not candidates. But if the party turned to either of them, he would doubtless reassess. And I still think Cuomo would accept a genuine party draft, should it come.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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