NOT ALL that much has happened since last February, when Gov. Mario Cuomo, the Democratic dazzler from Queens, set the political world on its ear by announcing that he would not seek the presidency. Gary Hart and Joe Biden got in and then got out ahead of schedule. Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, proclaimed his candidacy in April, raised $10 million and briefly became the front runner. He is, however, running behind Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois in the Iowa opener.
The six Democrats move in a body from podium to podium, hoping that one event will shake something loose. The next big seance will be at the Kennedy Center on Dec. l, where they will be competing with Mikhail Gorbachev for the public fancy.
The Democrats, who until the stock-market crash on Oct. 19, were told they could not win, are now hearing that they cannot lose. They know that they may inherit a nervous country and a tattered economy, but they are hungry for the White House all the same. But the question of the standard-bearer is still wide open.
The governor has been on the wing, from Moscow to Pittsburgh.He raises more money outside of his state than any man in his party. He is its most sought-after orator. The more they see him -- and he makes sure he's never out of sight for long -- the more they yearn for him. A recent interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, in which Cuomo repeated what he said last February -- namely, that he would not run unless he were drafted -- started the pot boiling over again. Statements in praise of Simon were taken to be a putdown of his previous favorite, Dukakis. Cuomo encouraged Dukakis to get in and whispered in his ear about strategy. He denies that he was giving Dukakis the leg. He was just acting in his self-appointed role as commentator and handicapper of the race he stubbornly refuses to join.
Every day, some Democrat lays out the disheartening scenario to him: Simon wins Iowa but loses to Dukakis in New Hampshire; Dukakis in turn is beaten by Jesse Jackson in the South on Super Tuesday. Result: back to ground zero, or perhaps a conference call from party leaders, if there are such, telling Cuomo that it is his duty to pick up the flag.
Everyone understands that Cuomo will not be a dream candidate. He can be contentious, vindictive and even petty. A mission to Moscow with many blunders exposed the limitations of his staff. But when he opens his mouth and starts to speak in that warm tenor of what really matters and what we owe to each other, all is forgiven.
Cuomo keeps saying that there are other worthier candidates than he. Nobody who knows him thinks he means it. It is obvious he does not wish to trudge around the Iowa plains carrying a ceramic dog for a hard-to-get delegate, as did Rep. Richard Gephardt, who is sinking slowly with the millstone of his "tough" trade policy. Cuomo would love to be president -- he must contemplate the joy of running the country in partnership with that other Democratic strongman, House Speaker Jim Wright. But he wants to do it his way. Not for him the demeaning, draining, primary trail.
If this sounds presumptuous and arrogant, it at least has a precedent. In 1952 another golden-throated Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, was handed the nomination by incumbent Harry S. Truman. Stevenson, sniffing the odor of corruption from the "mess in Washington" turned it down. He got it on his own terms at the Demcratic convention -- and, of course, lost all but five states to Dwight Eisenhower.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) was musing about Cuomo the other day. She says the young activists in her state are with Dukakis. She herself is uncommitted. She is one of those who thinks Cuomo has to make his move in the first week in December, so he can get his name on the ballot in major primaries. If he does nothing and gets the nomination anyway, she thinks the others will "resent" him. For long?
Her reply: "You have to ask yourself, 'Is he charismatic?' 'Yes.'
"'Is he compassionate?' 'Yes.'
"'Is he smart?' 'Yes.' There's your answer."
Former vice president Walter F. Mondale came to town last week to preside over the National Democratic Institute Award lunch.
Mondale, who earned the nomination the hard way, had a chance recently to see the Democratic hopefuls in one of their innumerable joint appearances at a Minnesota dinner honoring the late Hubert Humphrey.
"They all did well," he said, "but they are all Dr. Goodwrenches. They talk about problems and solutions. There just isn't much poetry there."
The absence of poetry among the avowed contenders is, of course, the reason why Democrats hope Cuomo is not just playing peekaboo. They want leadership, too. They think Cuomo's got it. Some of them press Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.): "Tell Cuomo he's gotta do it."
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.