ALBANY, N.Y., JUNE 5 -- The one thing he wouldn't do, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) assured his audience at the state Democratic convention here today as he accepted unanimous nomination to a third term, was "bash Washington."
That was the signal that the bashing was about to begin.
He blamed New York's well-publicized budget woes -- and those of 37 other states -- on the "sluggishness" of the national economy. He took a swipe at President Bush and Congress for being so "reluctant" to reduce the federal budget deficit. He scolded the Bush administration for "declaring a war on drugs . . . but not supplying the bullets." And he lampooned the administration for proposing -- despite the end of the Cold War -- to spend $500 million per plane on as many as 167 "stealth" bombers.
Then, in the most electric moment of a speech that sounded like the keynote of the presidential campaign he seems perpetually on the verge of running, Cuomo hushed the crowd.
"I'm not going to spend any time on savings and loan. I'm not going to do that . . . ," he said as the audience, by now wise to the game, began laughing, clapping and egging him on.
"No, no," Cuomo protested with mock solemnity. "God forbid. Because then they'll say, 'Oh, you see, now that's really Washington-bashing,' and I don't want any Washington-bashing."
Of course, that's exactly what Cuomo wanted as he assailed "these conservatives who believed that what you had to do is deregulate" and "let these bankers do what they want to do."
"What did they do?" Cuomo thundered. "They stole everything in sight! And now you're paying for it!"
Before he could supply the punch line, the crowd was on its feet in an explosive, angry sustained roar.
As soon as it died down, someone from the audience shouted " '92." There was more applause.
Political insiders have seen this act before -- in 1986 and 1987 -- when Cuomo enagaged in what many viewed as a sumptuous political tease before (and some believed, even after) bowing out of the 1988 campaign. "Mario Cuomo is a presidential candidate only in non-presidential years," said Democratic media consultant Bob Squier, reflecting the skepticism that persists in many party circles.
But here in Albany, some Cuomo intimates who never thought he would run in 1988 have come to believe he'll be a candidate in 1992. "I haven't spoken a word about it with him -- I doubt he's discussed it with anyone -- but my intuition is that he's going to run for president this time, and I even think he may have already made up his mind to run," said Martin Steadman, Cuomo's former press secretary and his current partner in running a mock team in a "rotisserie" baseball league. "His issue, fairness for the little guy, is coming to the fore, and I think he knows it."
Cuomo declines to discuss 1992, but when he formally declared for a third term this past weekend he was careful not to make any pledge to serve out the full four years.
He also has taken a number of steps consistent with a politician putting his house in order before heading off on a distant journey. One has been to give his lieutenant governor, Stan Lundine, far more exposure and responsibility than Cuomo himself had when he was lieutenant governor. "You notice, he's begun to push Stan out front every chance he gets," said C.D. "Rapp" Rappleyea (R), minority leader of the state Assembly.
The other has been to gear up a massive effort to elect a Democratic state Senate for what would be the first time in 25 years. Cuomo frequently quipped in 1987 that if he ever tried to spend protracted periods of time campaigning for president in Iowa, Senate Republicans in Albany would "steal my desk while I was gone."
The state Democratic Party, which Cuomo tightly controls, has recruited a dozen women challengers in Senate races and hopes to capitalize on the abortion issue. "The governor and I are going to treat this almost like a parliamentary election," Lundine said. "We're going to go into a district and say if you like our program, you have to vote for our Senate candidate."
Cuomo will have the luxury of campaigning for others this fall because, unlike virtually all other governors in the economically troubled Northeast, he faces what is widely viewed as an easy reelection. The state GOP, according to local press accounts, ran through 19 potential candidates before finally recruiting economist Pierre Rinfret, a political novice.
Should Cuomo, 57, win a third consecutive term, an unprecedented feat for a Democrat in this state, "he's likely to come under a lot of 1992 pressure from Democrats around the country," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "After the November elections, people are going to start taking 1992 polls, and Cuomo's name is sure to be on top."