Unpopular Cuomo Turns Race Around By Defining His Foe

EVEN when playing pickup basketball with friends in Albany, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo enjoys a hard, elbows-allowed kind of game. The governor plays politics the same way.

This aggressive approach has made it a close race tomorrow between the three-term governor and his challenger, George Pataki, a little-known state senator from Peekskill.

Mr. Cuomo has made it a close race even though he is no longer a popular governor. He dramatically closed a double-digit deficit in the polls through negative advertising that portrayed Mr. Pataki as the pawn of Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R) of New York. Mr. Pataki, meanwhile, has not been effective at articulating his own vision for the state.

If Cuomo actually wins, ``the message is that if you are going to beat an unpopular incumbent, you have to establish your own political identity and not assume that the `Anyone But Cuomo' factor is large enough,'' says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Although Pataki has promised a 25-percent income-tax cut over the next four years, Mr. Miringoff says the tax-cut message has not been credible with the voters. Over the weekend, Pataki aired new commercials that reinforce this tax-cut message.

Pataki's prospects have been dampened by a divided Republican Party. New York City's Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani not only endorsed Cuomo, but he has actively campaigned around the state.

On Friday, Mr. Giuliani appeared at a Cuomo press conference with Democrats Ed Koch and David Dinkins.

Another significant problem for Pataki is the so-called ``stature gap.'' Cuomo is a national figure, remembered for his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention. Because of the large number of Democrats in the state, Cuomo actually derived some benefit from President Clinton, who campaigned for him.

To keep Pataki from gaining in stature, Cuomo has refused to debate the challenger unless all the minor candidates are included. Pataki refused those terms, fearing it would dilute his effort.

For Cuomo to win, however, the governor will need a large turnout in the city. Miringoff estimates Cuomo will need to win two-thirds of the city vote, which represents about 30 percent of the total vote statewide. He also needs 40 percent of the suburban vote and 30 percent of the ``upstate'' vote. A third-party candidate, Thomas Golisano, a Rochester businessman, endorsed by Ross Perot on Saturday, is likely to win 5 to 6 percent of the vote. Thus, the winning candidate will only need to win about 45 percent of the total votes.

To snare a large number of city votes, Cuomo will need a large African-American turnout. On Nov. 4, the Rev. Jesse Jackson went to Brooklyn Technical College to try to motivate black and Hispanic students to vote. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the Council of Black Elected Democrats for New York State, says some Democrats are worried blacks might be less inclined to vote because of the defeat of Mayor David Dinkins last year. But Mr. Meeks says he is now confident of getting about 600,000 African Americans to vote statewide tomorrow.

To help ensure that African Americans vote, Meeks says there will be about 100 people on the streets encouraging voters in each heavily black district. In the past, Democrats have given ``walking around money'' to these people. The Cuomo campaign would not say if they plan to continue the practice this year.

* Rachel Scheier contributed to this article.

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