ALBANY, N.Y. -- If Mario Cuomo had his way, Democrats who are perceived as liberals, including himself, would line up with Republicans perceived as conservatives -- such as investment banker Peter G. Peterson -- and persuade others to start reducing the cost of programs that by law "entitle" the recipients to specific benefits.

And yes, Cuomo would specifically include Social Security benefits, long a sacred cow among politicians of both parties, and government pension programs.

In the current negotiations to find a budget deficit reduction package that will reassure financial markets, President Reagan has said that everything is on the table -- except Social Security.

That's wrong, because it provides a convenient refuge for Democrats and other politicians, Cuomo told me in an interview. The only thing that should be held "off the table" are programs for the poor -- the truly poor. Today, he suggests, many of the Social Security system's elderly beneficiaries are comfortably fixed. Yet they continue to receive generous funds, with an annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) never guaranteed by any presumed "contract."

"Programs for the poor start with the most needy," Cuomo said. "That used to be the elderly. Now it's the children. Minority children are perhaps the neediest people in this society. {They need} everything from nutrition programs to Headstart and education programs. And I say that not as an argument from compassion but as an argument from common sense.

"The first criterion is needs. We have to deal with needs, not wants. That means you've got to start paring down on some of these entitlement programs, because they are not all related to needs. That's what Pete Peterson and the Republicans are saying. So what's happened to ideology? That's what the Democrats should all be saying -- even with respect to Social Security. The test has to be needs."

As I reported last week, Cuomo also would take a big bite out of defense spending, capitalizing on the weakness of the Soviet economy, which he says is forcing Gorbachev to the bargaining table. He also feels we are "smart enough" to do business with the Russians, without strengthening their military potential.

Even within the scope of programs for the poor, choices may have to be made, Cuomo argues. He pays tribute to Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.) -- "a great American progressive" -- for a "gutsy" proposal that mass transit funds should give way to inner city education. According to Cuomo, Gray said: "I would rather have my son walk to school than ride to nowhere."

Cuomo is clearly impressed with establishment Republicans such as senators Robert Dole of Kansas and Pete Domenici of New Mexico -- who have been bucking Reagan -- and with Peterson, former secretary of Commerce under Nixon and now chairman of The Blackstone Group in New York. "Some radical conservatives would call Peterson a failed Republican because he's too close to reasonableness," Cuomo said. "When Pete says everything must be on the table except programs for the poor -- why, that's my State of the State address for the past five years."

Cuomo regularly consults with Peterson; another Republican, American Express Co. Chairman James Robinson; and a liberal Democrat, Lazard Freres partner Felix Rohatyn. Despite the party labels, he sees little difference among them on major issues of the day. He also talks to economists Lester Thurow and Robert Reich, and to former New York Federal Reserve Bank president Anthony Solomon. A key adviser, now chairman of his Urban Development Corp., is Vincent Tese, who Cuomo says made a fortune in foreign exchange and gold trading.

When Cuomo talks to business groups, he tells them that if the United States is not going to be "outcompeted" in the 21st century, something must be done to improve the education of and quality of life for American minorities.

"I say, 'look, you want to do it out of love, that will make me very happy. But you guys are business people. I want to give you a fact: Your work force in the 21st century is going to be predominantly black, Hispanic, women, the elderly and the disabled. So if you want to be ready for the 21st century you better do something about bringing these people up. ... We need them.' "

If a Pete Peterson and Jim Robinson are that closely in tune with a Mario Cuomo and Felix Rohatyn, is everybody in American politics converging on a middle-of-the-road program? I asked Cuomo if Democratic politicians, having perceived a major public swing against big social programs and large government deficits, are moving too far to emulate their Republican rivals.

Cuomo, who acknowledges that the public identifies him as a New Deal liberal -- but who regards himself as a centrist -- thinks such charges are nonsense.

But haven't modern-day Democratic leaders such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy painfully staked out a more conservative position, disavowing the "big spender" image, stressing "fiscal integrity," and conceding that there are, after all, limits to expansion of programs identified with Johnson's Great Society?

Cuomo feels that the exact opposite is true -- that Republicans such as Bob Dole, who Cuomo thinks may be the Republican winner -- have started to talk about "compassion" and "family." Back in 1984, he says, Jack Kemp, Paul Laxalt and Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the GOP convention mocked the notion of "family" as used by Cuomo at the Democratic convention.

"I used the word 'family' meaning the United States as a place where everybody would come together collectively to share benefits and burdens," Cuomo said. "They got up and said things like: 'Their {the Democrats'} idea of family is that government is Poppa. Our idea of family is the old nuclear, blood family. And we say, that family should be untouched by government.

"What they meant by 'family' was antiabortion, antidirty pictures, etc. What we meant by 'family' was {that} government has a role to help people. Now, when they use the term 'family', they are not talking about Momma and Poppa and a cottage in the suburbs" -- he bangs his desk for emphasis -- "they're talking about government helping people.

"So the development in this race is not going to be Democrats running away from their agenda, it's going to be Republicans running toward it. The only one who won't is {New York Rep.} Jack Kemp, and we'll let the results speak for themselves. Jack Kemp will be the true Republican in this race, and you can judge their agenda by how well he does... . And excuse me, also Pete duPont {of Delaware}. He's also a true Republican."