Cuomo Favored for Gov, But Ambitions Still Unknown

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

    It's a question Andrew Cuomo, the popular attorney general who everyone expects to run for governor this year, continues to duck.

    Instead, Cuomo is piling up headlines for settlements with wrongdoers while never having to balance a budget, stare down powerful lobbyists or provide a plan to deal with recurring multibillion dollar deficits. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. David Paterson and Republican candidate Rick Lazio take political hits for calling to cuts spending requested by powerful special interests during a historic fiscal crisis.

    Lazio said Cuomo's coy strategy plays into Albany's "political dysfunction."

    "It's the worst kept secret in New York state that Andrew Cuomo has ambitions to run for governor," Lazio said. "So, announce it and find solutions, or at least support Gov. Paterson when he does something right. Don't undermine him and hope for a fiscal collapse because it will help your career."

    Erie County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican, is also facing voters as a potential candidate and this week, Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy announced he is considering a run, risking immediate and predictable scorn by those opposed to his hard line on illegal immigration.

    Cuomo and his spokesmen have repeatedly declined to say when the Democrat will announce his intention. When pressed by reporters Wednesday, he said he didn't want a political race to get in the way of the important work of the attorney general's office. The Associated Press on Thursday again pressed his press office about why Cuomo won't answer questions about the race. The office did not respond.

    Meanwhile, the Marist College poll shows Cuomo has a 3-to-1 advantage over Paterson, and a greater margin over Republican contenders. Cuomo may have an even bigger cushion of campaign cash when disclosure forms are released late this month. In December, Cuomo held a fundraiser for 1,000 people who paid $1,000 each to wish him happy birthday, as Jon Bon Jovi played.

    "What he's clearly trying to do is maintain his nonofficial candidate status as long as possible so he can continue to do the job that people have been responding favorably to," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll. "If he was an announced candidate, he'd have to be talking about how he would be governing differently, and that's not necessarily something he wants to talk about until down the road. Events can change, and he doesn't want to be committed to a certain route."

    December's Siena College poll found 51 percent of voters felt Cuomo still had time to announce his intention, compared to 35 percent who said he should declare he was in or out.

    Miringoff said that if formidable Republican Rudy Giuliani had run for governor, Cuomo may have already announced his decision.

    This is a tactic Cuomo has used before. In December 2008 and into last January, he refused to say if he sought Paterson's appointment to the U.S. Senate. It took badgering by reporters and a state Freedom of Information Law request to force Cuomo to acknowledge he was in the field, where he risked a loss. Paterson eventually chose Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    Part of the reason for the reluctant candidate approach this time likely goes back to 2002. Cuomo was forced to withdraw from the governor's race before a Democratic primary against then-Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who would have been New York's first black governor. Cuomo failed to draw enough money or supporters.

    There was a perceived backlash by black Democrats at the time, one that took Cuomo years to overcome, at least according to the polls. Now that the issue is being debated again by some black leaders, and the latest poll shows Paterson with a tiny rebound among black voters, Cuomo could avoid another public fight with a black politician by letting his fundraising and Paterson's low approval rating sink the governor.

    On Wednesday, Cuomo was mingling at his reception in a shoulder-to-shoulder gathering of lobbyists and lawmakers, part of what Paterson called the "culture of addiction to spending, power and approval" in his State of the State address minutes before.

    "Outside influences and inside decay have bred cynicism and scorn in the people we represent," Paterson said. "The moneyed interests, many of them here today as guests, have got to understand their days of influence in this Capitol are numbered."

    Hours later, news was leaked that Cuomo had subpoenaed a state senator over his use of state grants for a health clinic he founded. The subpoena in the probe begun more than six months ago was issued an hour before Paterson's speech in the Assembly chamber.

    The result were headlines on Thursday of Cuomo combating alleged corruption while Paterson was merely talking about it.

    The Daily News' Bill Hammond wrote that Cuomo, after Paterson's speech Wednesday, "issued a statement that went straight for his rival's Achilles heel — the widespread belief that Paterson, for all his bluster, is too weak to deliver on his agenda."

    Now, Cuomo rides high in the polls, protected by those hoping to benefit from his landslide, and undeterred by having to explain exactly how he would do the job, while opponents complain they can't get a fair fight.

    Cuomo's seeming invincibility and high poll numbers haven't been seen since Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ran for governor in 2006.