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Analysis: Cuomo steps on own announcement

By JAMES B. CHAPIN, National Political Analyst

NEW YORK, April 19 (UPI) -- In a famous turn of phrase, Michael Kinsley once wrote that "a gaffe is when a politician says what he really believes." And that turned out to be the story of Andrew Cuomo's announcement for governor of New York State this week.

No one knows what Cuomo said during his announcement, but what he said in one of his follow-up interviews became the subject of headlines and tut-tutting editorials in all the state's newspapers.

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Cuomo said that Gov. George Patakai wasn't the leader after Sept. 11, but that Mayor Rudy Giuliani was. Pataki "stood behind the leader. He held the leader's coat."

This idea is neither shocking nor new; it has been a commonplace in the pages of the same newspapers that professed to be "shocked, shocked" that Cuomo would say such a thing. But there's nothing new to the reality that candidates are held by the media to a different, and theoretically "higher" standard than it applies to itself.

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This was a classic gaffe in the Kinsleyian sense -- Cuomo had made the blunder of saying what he believed and what lots of others had written.

Cuomo's two foes, incumbent Republican Pataki, and his primary challenger for the Democratic nomination, State Comptroller Carl McCall, both dealt with Cuomo's self-inflicted wound like professionals, saying nothing while letting proxies speak for them. In Pataki's case, his chief proxy was no less than Giuliani himself, backed up by the police and fire unions, all piously deploring the use of Sept. 11 for political purposes. Certainly such an idea would never have occurred to anyone except Andrew Cuomo, it seemed!

It was an ironic way for Cuomo to end a week which otherwise had been going quite well for him. Earlier polls had shown him only narrowly ahead of McCall, and, since those same polls showed him splitting the black vote with McCall, the state's highest African-American office holder, no one took them seriously. But this week two new media polls showed him ahead of McCall by 14 and 17 points, respectively.

The same aggressiveness that got him in trouble this week has so far stood him in good stead. As against the bland and passive campaign so far carried on by the 65-year old McCall, Cuomo didn't seem to have fire in his belly so much as a furnace.

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In a race in which the incumbent governor remains 20 points ahead in the polls, despite the fact that his party now trails in registration by three million to five million, many Democrats have tended to drift toward the candidate who seems to want to win at any cost.

Pataki, who started his political career as a right-wing state senator, has steadily moved across the spectrum as New York has become more liberal. By now, it is very hard to distinguish most of his policies from those of his Democratic challengers -- in some ways, he is actually running to their left.

This repositioning has been successful, so far, and probably will suffice to win Pataki a third term this fall. But it doesn't change the reality that New York is an increasingly Democratic state.

It's easy to forget that in the post-World War II era, that Republican presidential candidates carried the state in seven of 11 presidential elections, until the recent Democratic "fourpeat" starting in 1988, or that Republicans have held the governorship far more than Democrats in the same period.

The relationship of the Cuomo family to Pataki, is, of course, eerily similar to that of the Bushes to Bill Clinton. In each case, the defeated father hopes to get redemption, of a sort, by seeing his son elected to the same post from which he was ejected eight years before.

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The flap over this gaffe will subside. If Cuomo wins the primary, it will be used by the newspapers to do what they all tend to do and want to do -- endorse the incumbent. But even if McCall wins the election, they will end up doing the same thing, a tad more reluctantly.

In any event, the odds look pretty good that Pataki will become the fourth governor to be elected to a third term since the office became a four-year term in 1938. But he'll be the least nationally significant one: the previous three were Thomas E. Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Mario Cuomo, all considered serious candidates for national office.

And that Pataki won't win by 20 points, but by a much closer margin. There's a reason he has changed his policies so much, because he realizes that, even in a climate favorable to incumbents, and even with the support of the vast majority of the state's interest groups, his victory isn't a sure thing.

Every little bit helps, however, and this week Andrew Cuomo made his already uphill task just a mite harder.

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