TRYING TO READ MARIO CUOMO'S MIND IS NOT a crime punishable by the death penalty. But tell Cuomo you're taking his pulse on the presidency and he'll lunge at you like a prosecutor and bury you under piles of well-chosen words. By the time he's finished, you're ready to cop a plea and confess that there's no way you'll ever know what this man is really thinking.

Still, I got it right the last time -- I knew, almost from the beginning, that Mario Cuomo was not going to run for president in 1988. I have witnesses. But unlike my courageous colleague, who reports wisely in these pages on the dangers of making book on Cuomo's intentions, I did not leave an elaborate paper trail. So why should anyone believe me? This time, I figured: Be gutsy. Apply the same exquisite logic that worked so well the last time to 1992. Why not climb way out on a limb and bid to become the premier Cuomoologist?

You may fairly ask: Why bother? Cuomo himself thinks it's a waste of time. He dismisses Cuomoology as a gimmick that provides reporters with all-expense-paid trips to Albany, N.Y., and easy, speculative stories that are fun to write and require far less effort than, say, uncovering a housing or banking scandal.

"I think they're wasting their time, and I try to save them from it," Cuomo said helpfully in an interview during my own recent Albany excursion. "I don't think it's relevant, I don't think it's important, I really don't. I don't think it's useful and I don't like to be party to a wasteful exercise."

He said this in the same interview in which he asked: "Do you know about the Harris poll?" The poll he wanted to make sure Post readers knew about happened to show Mario Cuomo as the front-runner for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Having made his point, he dismissed the significance of the poll.

You tell me: What message was Mario Cuomo trying to send in all this?

By the end of this piece, I intend to take my chances in the Great Mario Mind-Reading Sweepstakes, and to back up my hunch with a new theory of presidential relativity. But by way of getting there, it's worth answering the prior question: Why is it that this man tantalizes so many people, notably reporters? It is not, I would suggest, just the prospect of those free trips to Albany. PART OF THE ANSWER IS THAT CUOMO IS ONE OF THOSE people whose personality gets described in journalistic phrases like "richly textured." That means he's complicated, and you don't need to know him for a long time to realize this. Interviewing him is enough.

With Mario Cuomo, interviews are never merely interviews. They are neither monologues nor dialogues. They are debates in which Cuomo pounces on the weakness of a question or of the argument implicit in a question. He is always aware that the premises underlying a discussion can be more important than the content of the discussion itself. While most politicians avoid disagreeing with people, especially with interviewers, Cuomo will punctuate conversations with phrases like: "You're wrong! Absolutely wrong!"

Most politicians like to relive their victories. Cuomo, who plays very hard to win, is often at his most eloquent in talking about defeat -- his own defeats, and those of others. He is someone who believes in the redemptive power of suffering.

Few things have so shaped Cuomo's view of politics as his loss to Ed Koch in the 1977 race for mayor of New York City. Cuomo was virtually dragged into the race by then-Gov. Hugh Carey, his on-again, off-again friend and ally, and was backed by a lot of New York's smart money. The one person who didn't think he belonged there was Mario Cuomo. He hated the race, hated all the establishment backing, and it showed. He lost a Democratic primary that most everyone thought he should have won.

Under New York's peculiar election law, Cuomo was still on the general election ballot as the Liberal Party nominee. It was only then -- after he was abandoned by Carey and company -- that Cuomo began finding his voice as the quintessential outsider running against the powers that be. His enemy was the great "Them." His slogan: "They couldn't make him deal. They couldn't make him quit." Cuomo lost, but did far better than expected, and restored his career. His greatest electoral triumph, when he faced Koch again in 1982 and beat him for the Democratic nomination for governor, also came when he was an outsider and an underdog whose chances were belittled. This time, the establishment was with Koch, which was just fine with Mario Cuomo. He won a Democratic primary that most everyone thought he should have lost.

Cuomo thus believes that political resurrections are far more important than First Comings. That helps explain the existence of one of American politics' little-known mutual admiration societies, the one to which Mario Cuomo and Richard M. Nixon belong.

Talk about a relationship rich with meaning. No one, of course, knows more about political resurrection than Richard Nixon. And Cuomo, 58, the son of immigrants who preached "family, work and neighborhood" before Ronald Reagan did, identifies with Nixon as another product of the middle-class work ethic.

Asked about his relationship with Nixon, Cuomo was at first a bit hesitant. He was careful to emphasize that he was an early and sharp critic of Watergate and that he and Nixon are not personally close. "We talk about one another more than we talk to one another," Cuomo said.

But once Cuomo got started, he waxed more eloquent in Nixon's defense than would even the most faithful Orange County Republican.

"He was middle class," Cuomo said. "He was the American success story in that he came from no wealth, no power. Worked very hard, worked his way up. Did it honestly. Did it with a lot of common sense and a lot of hard work. Was not anywhere really aberrant intellectually. He was kind of mainstream in his thinking. His was very solid, very solid thinking. His foreign policy is still impressive to many people because of its common sense."

Cuomo came back to Nixon comeback stories several times. "You have to give it to him," Cuomo said. "It took amazing strength and courage to come back from where he'd been."

"I was not a Nixon sympathizer by any means, because my first introduction to political life was at the time of Watergate," he said. "But in fairness to his whole life, if you measure his performance as president and his life generally outside of Watergate, what else would you condemn about him in any substantial way? You might be offended by his manners, by his irritability perhaps, by the foul language he used on the tapes. Okay. I'll give you all of that. I'm not given to being judgmental anyway, but even if I were, I'd be hard pressed to come down hard on this guy. On the other hand, if you look at the government he gave us, it was very progressive . . ."

Cuomo's conclusion: "I can separate Watergate from everything else he did, and I think that's not a bad thing either for the American people -- to be able to separate failures from the rest of a person's life. We have all had our failures. Some of us get caught, some of us don't. But we have all had our failures."

Nixon, according to mutual acquaintances, returns the compliments to Cuomo in private conversations. Even more interesting, Richard Nixon may have been one of those who urged Mario Cuomo to run the last time.

In Paul Taylor's piece accompanying this one, Cuomo says: "Some of the people who encouraged me to run, their identity would shock you -- some people from the other party."

Armed with Paul's quote, I looked at Cuomo and asked: That's Richard Nixon, isn't it?

There was a very, very long pause.

Finally, Cuomo smiled. "I'll settle for that quote," he said. "I will not elaborate on it. I don't want to shock Paul or you."

Cuomo is equally eloquent about a more conventional political hero, Abraham Lincoln. But here again, he emphasizes Lincoln's defeats as much as his triumphs. Abraham Lincoln becomes Richard Nixon.

One ritual of The Cuomo Interview is the moment when he paraphrases an old Wall Street Journal clipping he keeps under the blotter on his desk: "If you sometimes get discouraged, consider this fellow. He dropped out of grade school, ran a country store, went broke, took 15 years to pay off his bills. Took a wife, unhappy marriage. Ran for House, lost twice. Ran for Senate, lost. To look at his speech that became classic, the audience was indifferent. Attacked daily by the press. Despised by half the country. Despite all of this, imagine how many people all over the world have been inspired by this awkward, rumpled, brooding man who signed his name simply A. Lincoln.

"Isn't that great?" he continued. "That was Lincoln. The comeback story. The American story. That's the Lincoln appeal. The indomitability of it. The persistence. The courage. The strength. Coming back. That's what Nixon was doing."

FOR A POLITICIAN, LOVING LINCOLN IS ABOUT THE EASI- est thing in the world -- it's certainly more popular than defending Nixon. But Cuomo carries his admiration beyond the merely dutiful. In the summer of 1989, he hosted a group of Polish schoolteachers from the teachers section of Solidarity. During their visit, Cuomo discovered that Lincoln's works were not available in Eastern Europe. So he set up the State of New York/Lincoln on Democracy Project, which assembled Lincoln's writings for publication. The American edition of Lincoln on Democracy -- with an introduction by Cuo- mo -- will be published this month. Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Japanese editions are also planned.

Cuomo's introduction is an eloquent tribute to the man who ended slavery. But anyone interested in Cuomoology cannot help but wonder about the autobiographical overtones. There is, of course, the obligatory reference to resurrection: "I like to joke with people today that I've always liked Lincoln because he's reassuring to politicians like me," Cuomo writes. "He was himself a big homely-looking politician from a poor family who started off by losing a few elections, yet in the end succeeded brilliantly."

The man who brought Democrats to their feet with his 1984 keynote speech at the party's national convention writes this about the Great Emancipator's style: "Lincoln brought the American people to their feet, cheering, crying and laughing, an unforgettable reminder of the indomitability of the human spirit." Mario Cuomo, who is as proud of his skills as a trial lawyer as he is of anything else, praises Lincoln's "unique ability to craft arguments of raw power and breathtaking beauty, to argue with the seamless logic of a great lawyer and the large heart of a great humanitarian." If there is a single reason Cuomo hovers over the Democratic presidential universe with such persistence, it is what Democrats see, with some longing, as his "unique ability to craft arguments of raw power and breathtaking beauty." And if there is one other candidate very much on Democrats' minds now, it is Michael S. Dukakis, who seemed uniquely lacking in just that skill. If Dukakis's lack of passion and eloquence was the problem, might not the passionately eloquent Mario Cuomo be the solution?

Cuomo, with some passion, threw cold water all over this idea. Passion, he said, had nothing to do with Lincoln's appeal. Lincoln's appeal was much more cerebral, more like that of Michael Dukakis.

Dukakis?

"Did he do it with passion?" Cuomo asked of Lincoln. "Did he do it with flailing arms? Did he do it with a powerful baritone voice? Did he do it by shouting at people? . . . It was his logic. It was his reason. The felicity of his language, yes, but not his passion. Not his passion at all . . . It was not the expressive emotionalism. It was not the histrionics . . . There could be passion in reason . . . It's a passion of ideas and not sounds and gestures and decibels. And that's what Dukakis had, only he didn't recognize it."

At the end of this tour de force, Cuomo looked up, grinned at his interlocutor, who had obviously committed the sin of overlooking Dukakis's links to greatness, and asked one of his trademark questions:

"Don't you feel guilty?"

He had just executed one of his favorite moves: denying one of the premises of those who are trying to push him into a presidential race.

Cuomo also vigorously disputed another premise of the Cuomophiles: the notion that this time, he could win the nomination easily. He reprised a conversation he had recently had with another reporter: "I said, 'What are you people talking about? What do you mean it's easy?' . . . I said, 'You people never learn.' " He then recited the catalogue of press miscalls in 1988, notably that Gary Hart "was an absolute cinch" and that Bush "could not win under any circumstances" and surely could not win after he picked Dan Quayle.

"Well," concluded America's premier press critic, "don't you ever learn?" CONSERVATIVE PRESS CRITICS WOULD ARGUE THAT ONE reason reporters never learn -- and refuse to give up on the Mario scenario -- is that they are looking for an articulate champion of liberalism, something the country has not seen for a good long time.

These conservatives have less of a point than they think -- not necessarily because they're wrong about the press, but because they're wrong about Cuomo. He is not the liberal that either the conservatives or the liberals think he is. This is another aspect of Cuomo that tantalizes people, because as a matter of principle, he tries to make it as hard as possible for people to get an ideological handle on him.

It must be conceded up front that Cuomo is one of the nation's most articulate defenders of bread-and-butter, social-justice liberalism. Of Ronald Reagan, he said: "His principal fault was making the rejection of compassion respectable, especially in middle-class minds . . . There are a lot of middle-class people who wished they were free of the burden to help poor people, the people in the neighborhood they left. They wanted to be free of that, but they felt guilty about it. Reagan made it respectable. What he said in effect was, 'Look, you wouldn't help them anyway.' "

And on black-white issues, Cuomo can sound Jesse Jacksonian. Rather than speak out strongly against a black boycott of two Korean grocery stores in Brooklyn, he has concentrated on trying to explain why many blacks feel as they do. Indeed, he argues that the resentment of African Americans -- he uses Jackson's preferred phrase -- has to be understood as reaction against the relative advantages they see Asian immigrants as having.

Koreans, he said, "come from a very strong culture at home -- with roots, with wherewithal, a place to return to . . . You need more workers, they send over more. You need more money, they send over more . . . Their community is a bank, a bank of talent, a bank of money."

Lest he be misunderstood, Cuomo took care to bestow his highest compliment on Koreans. "Do they work hard?" he asked. "They will work you to death, just the way my parents did. Absolutely." Having said this, he felt free to use his favorite formulation -- the accusatory "you," which he rarely means personally but which occasionally surprises his audiences -- to explain in one angry torrent why African Americans so resent the success stories of Koreans and other recent immigrants.

"Why?" he asked. "They don't have a stake. They don't have a chance to open that business. And they don't have a nation to go back to, because you took that away from them. You cut them off from it. You denied them their roots. And then you're open to change. And now, 'Okay, now we've done everything for you. We've freed you.' Thanks a lot. My muscles are all shriveled. My culture is gone. I have no wealth. I have no education. I have no dignity. You haven't given me back my name. You haven't accepted me as a human being. And now you say, 'Terrific, you've done enough.' God forbid affirmative action. That would be wrong. Of course they resent it. How could they not?"

Impassioned outbursts like this tend to frighten conservatives while convincing liberals that Cuomo is an apostle of the True Faith. But the fact is, as most of those who watch state government closely will tell you, that Cuomo's actual performance has been infinitely more cautious than his rhetoric.

In the first place, Cuomo has used a divided legislature -- the Democrats control the state Assembly, the Republicans control the state Senate -- to govern down the middle. He can invoke pressure from the Republicans in the continued on page 48 DIONNE continued from page 25 state Senate to keep Assembly Democrats from pushing him left; he uses the Assembly Democrats to keep things from veering right. And he picks his shots very carefully. "Out of every 10 issues, Cuomo will do the conventional thing on eight," said state Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Long Island Republican. "He's brilliant at figuring out which two he should be unconventional on."

Moreover, though Cuomo's support for abortion rights has led to some public fights with his beloved Roman Catholic Church, his world view is still very much that of a tradition-minded Catholic. Cuomo said he shares the views of "the conservatives and all the others" who have defended "the old-fashioned assumption that there should be disciplining, that you should restrain your appetites, that you have a sense of responsibility, that you ought to be held accountable.

"These old-fashioned notions -- notions that we took for granted when we were being raised, which were imposed on us from the earliest -- the loss of these was very damaging to society," said the man who is so often cast as the liberal's liberal.

Cuomo, in fact, has devoted much energy to debating those who would claim he is a liberal. Indeed, he has devoted much energy to debating anyone who would label him in any way. His preferred ideological moniker is "progressive pragmatist." And he says if progressive pragmatism begins to suffer from "predictability," he'll "abolish the Progressive Pragmatist Party and start a new party called Neoprogressive Pragmatism."

At the end of the interview, I asked Cuomo about an interesting speech that another object of Democratic presidential fantasies, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, gave last year. Bradley's argument was that after having defeated totalitarianism first in its Nazi and then in its communist form, the United States needed a new set of challenges and a new set of organizing principles.

The ensuing rhetorical explosion could have been heard -- dare I say it? -- all the way down to the Potomac.

"If he's looking for a real good idea that can inspire your most energetic efforts: 'Catch up,' " Cuomo said impatiently. "Like get your work force to catch up. Get your education system to catch up . . . Find out how to manufacture and compete with people who have a wage rate that's one-fourth of yours without driving your own wage rate down.

"You want challenges for the mind and the politics? All the big ambitions you need are right here. It's not as though we're sitting around, luxuriating in our affluence, bored because we've con- quered all that there is to conquer. We're back to struggling. We're in the fullest-time job of all -- struggling and catching up because that's where we are. Our economy is going down the tubes; 16 states were in recession three months ago -- I'll bet you it's 20 now. You've got the biggest debt known to mankind. The biggest deficit . . . You have 5 percent of the world's population consuming 50 percent of the world's cocaine, 36 million people without health insurance, 25 million people who are illiterate, and you're looking for challenges? There's something wrong with somebody's vision here."

Cuomo finally began to wind down. "You've got a challenge," he said. "It's called survival. Struggling. Catching up." He ended on a note of sarcasm: " 'What field shall we conquer today?' he said, as the second child fell on the floor from starvation." THE SOUND YOU JUST HEARD IS THE sound of a man who sounds like he is running for president of the United States, and when I arrived in Albany, I was quite convinced that Cuomo was. By the time I left, I'd come to believe that he hasn't made the decision yet. But I'd also won some support, from some of those around Cuomo and (just a little) from the man himself, for my favorite theory: that contrary to popular thinking, the less likely it is that any Democrat can beat George Bush, the more likely it is that Mario Cuomo will run.

This theory has three parts. First, Cuomo likes running as an underdog and an outsider (1982); he hates being the front-runner and the establishment favorite (1977). A long-shot run against Bush would appeal to him. Cuomo himself said: "It is easier to face the situation where people don't expect a whole lot of you and you can happily surprise them."

Second, no one has been more public about his own doubts about whether he should be president than Mario Cuomo. Running in a tough race would be the best way for him to overcome them. Third, as some of his friends like to say, Cuomo can't stand the idea of himself as "selfish Mario" and vastly prefers to be "Saint Mario." Taking the easy shot at the Democratic nomination in 1988 would have been "selfish." Providing leadership to a party in trouble would be the more saintly thing to do.

Cuomo's passionate anger about the state of America in the 1990s could also push him into the race. He is already running a campaign against the inequalities of the Reagan-Bush years, using Kevin Phillips's angry book, The Politics of Rich and Poor, as his manifesto. (The Phillips book, by the way, carries just two blurbs, one from Cuomo, the other from Nixon.) And Cuomo is already laying the groundwork for a defense of his record in New York, which is now going through very tough times. New York's troubles have brought down Cuomo's approval rating, but the Republicans seem to have blown a real opportunity to challenge him early by nominating an exceptionally weak candidate, businessman Pierre Rinfret, to oppose him for reelection this year. Still, Cuomo is already making it clear that, unlike Michael Dukakis, he would not be defenseless if the Republicans Roger Ailesed his record in a presidential campaign.

Thus, part of Cuomo's stump speech these days is an assault on the Republicans' "fend-for-yourself federalism, which forces the states to try to go it alone." In other words: If New York and other states are in trouble, it's largely the fault of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Finally, friends report that Cuomo thinks much less of George Bush than he did of Ronald Reagan. They think he would really enjoy running against a Waspy Yalie who seems to have few deeply held convictions.

All this tells me he's going to run. But as I stare down from my limb, I begin to shudder. Cuomo's own words echo in my ears -- You people never learn!

The problem with trying to get inside Mario Cuomo's head is that he inevitably gets inside yours. I find myself thinking like Cuomo, hearing his voice say things he never said in the interview.

Did Saint Thomas More waste his time with political predictions? Does Mother Teresa? What good do political predictions do anyway for the people in wheelchairs? For the homeless? For the descendants of people who came to this country in chains? Don't you feel guilty? "What prediction shall I make today?" he asked himself as the second child fell on the floor from starvation. You say people are interested in whether I might run for president. How do you know that? Did you take a poll? Polls don't mean anything anyway. Okay, you want to write a story. You can't wait? You know I haven't made my mind up, anyway. I can't make my decision in my own time? God forbid you let me do that. Just remember, the day I prove your prediction wrong, I'll be on the phone to tell you: You're wrong. Absolutely wrong. But if you get it wrong, I'll respect you for the suffering it will cause you. Maybe you and Nixon and I can get together. We can agree that we all make mistakes. It's just that some of us get caught, some of us don't. And some of us make them in print.

E.J. Dionne Jr., a reporter on The Post's national staff, first covered Mario Cuomo in 1977 and has been hearing voices ever since.