Cuomo's Shaky Summer

NEW York without Gov. Mario Cuomo? It sounds almost unthinkable, given Mr. Cuomo's 12 years at the helm of the Empire State. But recently even Mr. Cuomo was publicly acknowledging the changed political climate in his state. Defeat in his quest for a fourth term, he said, is very possible.

That is why Cuomo is stepping up fund-raising activities and turning up almost every other night on local talk shows and newscasts. And that also explains why the White House, which needs to nail down New York's electoral votes to help ensure President Clinton's own reelection in 1996, is revving up its efforts to aid the governor.

Mr. Cuomo is clearly facing his toughest challenger since winning the office. His likely Republican opponent, George Pataki, a hitherto relatively obscure state senator, is an articulate speaker and a political moderate. Mr. Pataki is scoring points on the issues most troubling to voters: He takes a get-tough approach on crime, wants to lower New York's formidable tax bite, and favors a streamlined state government. These are similar to themes taken up by Rudolph Giuliani last year, when the Republican defeated New York City's incumbent Democratic mayor, David Dinkins. Thus, its hardly surprising that Cuomo, who has long been identified with the liberal faction of the Democratic Party, has been trying to recast his image. In his new book, ``The New York Idea: an Experiment in Democracy,'' the governor talks about the need to reduce the costs of big government and bring down the crime rate. In speeches, Cuomo has also broached having a public referendum on the death penalty, even though he has repeatedly vetoed death-penalty measures passed by the legislature.

Opinion polls show Pataki running even with Cuomo. One poll even has the Republican out front.

Still, many New York political pundits believe the governor, who is a skilled campaigner and debater, has time to recover. Were Cuomo to lose in November, shock waves would clearly be felt in the White House, where President Clinton has watched his own political polls slide south.

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