AT THE doleful election night observances at the New York Hilton, when Gov. Mario Cuomo came to the platform to present the most prominent local casualty to the few faithful, a few scattered shouts of "eighty-eight, eighty- eight" were heard. The governor grimaced.
It was a little tacky, but delicacy often goes first in debacle. Besides, many Democrats had been secretly using "eighty-eight" as their mantra ever since they heard Cuomo's spectacular keynote speech at the San Francisco convention. It was a way of saying that the party that has Mario Cuomo is not dead yet.
Earlier in the evening, NBC had conducted an exit poll about the governor's national future with voters in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The results were inconclusive. Two- thirds of those who responded said he was doing an excellent job; two-thirds also said they did not think he should run for the presidency four years from now.
Cuomo was in the governor's suite of the hotel when the outcome was announced. Reporters invited his reaction.
"My approval rating was terrific," he said. "That was an undiluted compliment."
And what about the fact that an equal number thought he should not consider the White House?
"I didn't hear that part," he said with a grin.
He was much more willing to discourse on the outcome of the larger poll that was being conducted nationwide about Mondale and Ferraro.
"The country was a little bedraggled," he said. "And here comes Ronald Reagan, the Gipper grown up to be Uncle Sam, not dynamic, but soothing. He looks so good. And it's easier to talk about interest rates than about deficits.
The best case the Democrats could make was less visible. People love to hear the good news. Reagan offers religion without the Sermon on the Mount. I talk about the homeless and he says, 'Hey, we won the Olympics, didn't we?'"
Cuomo dismissed all questions about '88 as silly.
Around him were low-voiced discussions of the Democratic strains and fractures that were being translated into a Reagan sweep.
"Where is the base?" murmured the governor's wife, Matilda. "Where are the blacks, the women, the minorities."
The face of Jesse Jackson appeared on the screen. A woman guest said angrily, "There's the man who destroyed the Democratic Party."
Cuomo, an unreconstructed liberal, sought to put the personal triumph spin on the results. It was not a ratification of the Reagan ideology, he insisted.
"They like Ronald Reagan. The only presidents he named were Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. The only ideology he referred to was liberal or centrist. He told the Russians, 'I'll talk to you.' He said to the elderly, 'I'll never cut your Social Security.'"
It was Reagan, not conservatism, that won.
Cuomo's voice may be the strongest to drown out the the swelling Democratic chorus which says that the party must now, in defeat, take a sharp right turn.
Cuomo's appeal is obvious. He is the popular governor of the second largest state, and the finest orator in the country. He is an intellectual who loves the meat and potatoes of politics. He is both thoughtful and zestful. And although he says his face is that of "a tired frog," he is totally telegenic. Even the Republicans concede his personal force, the element the electorate seems to have found wanting in Mondale.
But the reasons there may be less than a stampede to Cuomo was standing beside him on the ballroom stage. Geraldine Ferraro had unhappily brought to light the hazards inherent in a Italian-American candidacy. Anti-Italian bigotry is not dead, as a stream of farfetched stories about the Ferraro-Zaccaro family and the "mob" attested. It is no longer golden to be a Catholic, as it was in the first years after Jack Kennedy broke the barrier.
The punishment that Ferraro took from the bishops for her views on abortion suggests that a pro-life Republican can expect the support of the hierarchy when the alternative is a dissenting daughter or son of the Church.
Cuomo boldly challenged Archbishop John J. O'Connor of New York, who lectured and snubbed Ferraro, even before the campaign began. He questioned the archbishop's right to dictate how Catholics should vote. The cleric denied he was operating as a boss.
Cuomo made a much-remarked speech on religion in politics at Notre Dame in early September. He warned fellow Catholics against imposing their views on a pluralistic society: "We know the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us. He cautioned them against self-righteousness: "We can live and practice the morality that Christ gave us . . . not just by trying to make laws for others to live by, but by living the laws already written for us by God."
Cuomo showed some ambivalence during the general election. Midway, he gave an interview outlining his strategy if he were to run for the presidency. The Mondale people thought he could have done more in the state.
But no one is near him in terms of name recognition and national reputation, no one that is but Teddy Kennedy. As one New York Democrat said sadly, "Maybe we'll have a fight between the Italian-Catholics and the Irish-Catholics. It's the only one we haven't has so far."