New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D), the increasingly peripatetic noncandidate for president, has a new formulation about 1988: If "slurs" against his ethnicity continue, he might be goaded into changing his mind and running after all.
"You just let Evans and Novak and those people continue to write stories about Italians shouldn't run . . . that could change it," Cuomo said in an interview here following a rousing reception to his first political trip to Texas.
Cuomo called such punditry not only wrongheaded but "counterproductive, destructive . . . a reminder of nigger, kike and dago. It is the same thing all over again. One hoped we were beyond that and it has to be combated." In particular, he cited a recent Rowland Evans and Robert Novak column that "had an unnamed southern Democratic leader saying 'there aren't many Mario's in the South' "; and a Joseph Sobran column "that said I look like a guy from 'The Godfather.' "
"I don't think you can walk away from that kind of thing," Cuomo said, dismissing suggestions that he was playing a "double cute" game of searching for a pretext to run or that he was overreacting to columns that were intended not as slurs but as commentary about the political handicaps of ethnicity.
"What happens when you walk away, then you give it greater life. Then they will start writing, 'See, we told you.' "
Cuomo -- the focus of presidential speculation in the month since Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) removed himself from the Democratic race -- reiterated throughout the interview that he has "no plans" to run in 1988 and "no burning desire" to be president.
Yet his travel schedule these days is less reluctant than his words. He will follow his appearance here Saturday night at a fund-raiser for San Antonio Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D) with a fund-raiser next week in Florida for Gov. Bob Graham (D) and a separate appearance before a Jewish audience, and speeches to nonpolitical groups next month in Illinois and New Jersey.
If the "star treatment" he received here Saturday night keeps being repeated, it will take an act of surpassing abstinence to keep him off the road.
On his way to and from the head table, Cuomo found himself swamped by autograph seekers, some of whom had traveled from Houston -- a four-hour drive -- and the Texas Hill Country -- two hours -- to hear the speech.
This was Cuomo's maiden voyage to Texas, and he did not stint on preparation. Aide Brad Johnson said the governor wrote seven drafts of his 25-minute speech, then made more revisions on the plane ride down. It paid off.
Cuomo held his audience of 1,200 -- half Anglo, half Mexican American -- in near hypnotic attention as he spun an elegantly crafted ode to "politics of inclusion" by celebrating the immigrant experience he said gave him a bond with Gonzalez.
"I don't think the view of America from South Jamaica in Queens is much different from San Antonio's West Side. There was the same aching to belong in both places . . . the knowledge that we would have to work very hard, because our people were not born to this place . . . .
"I think I know how hard that must have been [for Gonzalez] at first, as a boy going to school where the language was not the language of his home, where the words sounded hard-edged and tight compared to the rolling, rounded rhythms of his mother and father's tongue. I think I know because the words sounded so different for me, from the world of the Italian blocks of South Jamaica, where passion and pride and powerlessness all lived together and people talked with their hands and their hearts."
Cuomo went on to strike the same chords of bedrock Democratic principle that made his keynote address at his party's 1984 national convention so well-received. "We believe in mutuality, a sharing of benefits and burden, a recognition that we are all of us bound together in need and in opportunity."
The whole of the Texas Democratic political establishment sat at the head table as Cuomo spoke, and afterward, they were all raves.
House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (he had invited Cuomo to the affair): "If he were the presidential nominee, he'd carry Texas."
State Attorney General Jim Mattox: "We have got certain suspicions about New Yorkers, but he bridges them by projecting such a strength of character. He is a strong person, and Texans like strength . . . . It was spellbinding."
San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros: "For rhythm, for melodic turn, for painting word pictures, there is nobody like him. He seems to have the best sense of himself of any of the candidates being talked about for 1988."
Cuomo said afterward he was "surprised" by the warmth of the response, especially the dozens of autograph seekers, and said he was making a mental note "to think about" what it meant.
Johnson said there had been some nervousness among Cuomo advisers about whether he could carry his message of "inclusiveness and mutuality" into a state like Texas, which prizes individual initiative, "but this shows we are vindicated." Others, like Cisneros, wondered whether the same theme would play as well in the vast reaches of the state north of here, where the immigrant saga is often seen in less glowing context.
Cuomo, in the interview, alternated between delight at his reception and his combativeness on ethnic matters.
He said that a statement he made last month to reporters in New York, in which he seemed to deny the existence of the Mafia, was taken out of context by the New York Post. He reiterated that he merely meant to argue that the Mafia and organized crime are not synonymous.
"Why would you use an Italian name to describe organized crime when you have all kinds of ethnic groups involved in it?" he said, chiding the news media for their continued use of the term.
Some aides reportedly have told Cuomo that harping on such ethnic issues does him no political good, but they said the concern comes from his gut and that it is not likely to go away.
"You got to understand, here's a guy who graduated No. 1 from St. John's [law school] and none of the Wall Street firms would take him," Johnson said.