NEW YORK -- Pierre Rinfret, the little-known economist drafted by desperate Republicans for a kamikaze mission this fall against Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D), has had a bit of trouble getting his campaign off the ground.
He has been accused of inflating his resume and calling himself "Dr." without having earned a doctorate. He has breezily suggested selling off New York City's subways, bridges and airports to private enterprise. He has denounced the New York Times for "lies" and "pure fabrication." His former son-in-law has charged that Rinfret once threatened to bankrupt him.
Rinfret also has drawn fire for describing Cuomo as "too chicken to serve his country," a reference to Cuomo's military deferment as a St. John's University student during the Korean War.
In an interview last week in his Lexington Avenue office, Rinfret, 66, a decorated World War II veteran, would not back off the charge.
"It's an absolutely valid question," he declared, his voice rising. "Why did I serve in the war, get decorated, get wounded? Why did my brother get killed? . . . It's the character of the man. The man refused to serve his country. The man preferred his own self to his country. I preferred my country."
Cuomo partisans say the White House clearly wants to see Rinfret bloody the governor, who is viewed as a potential 1992 challenger to President Bush and has not pledged to serve another full four years if he wins a third term in November. After a recent picture-taking session at the White House, Rinfret said Bush had advised him to hit Cuomo and "hit him hard."
The white-haired millionaire has done just that, questioning Cuomo's work habits, saying he looks "chalky" and "a little overweight" and criticizing him for accepting $150,000 in speaking fees outside the state last year. "A governor shouldn't be for hire," Rinfret said.
Responding to the "chicken" remark last week, Cuomo said, "All that means is that to some people, highbrow can be low class." He said he sees "a lot of visible Washington strings" behind such attacks.
Cuomo spokesman Gary Fryer called Rinfret's campaign "very negative and very shrill. We don't know very much about him. The man begins every appearance by acknowledging that everyone in the room knows more about state government than he does."
Rinfret, who runs a small economic forecasting firm and says he is worth $14 million, has never run for office. Party leaders plucked him from obscurity a week before their nominating convention after finding his name in a GOP loyalist's address book. Eighteen more prominent Republicans had already declined the honor of challenging Cuomo.
"I just had a personal feeling, an instinct, maybe 100 percent wrong, that we're going to win it," Rinfret said.
Few political professionals agree. Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, says Rinfret has been "acting like a buffoon" and has "become the national laughingstock of the 1990 elections."
GOP political consultant Jay Severin called it a "grotesque embarrassment" that the party had to publicly grope for a candidate. "It's probably premature to say Rinfret is inept, but so far it has been an inept candidacy," he said.
At the June convention, where he was introduced by Jonathan Bush, the president's brother, Rinfret said he would "get the vermin off the streets" by imposing the death penalty on drug pushers. But he acknowledged that he had no position on a variety of state issues.
Although he castigates Cuomo for two major tax increases in two years and insists that "spending is out of control," Rinfret declined to suggest a single budget cut. Instead, he spins Reaganesque anecdotes about state government inefficiency, including the tale of his efforts to get an $8 permit for a small boat he keeps at a Bronx marina.
Rinfret seems somewhat detached from the mechanics of a statewide campaign. While Cuomo has raised $8 million and Rinfret just over $500,000, the economist could not say how much money he needed to win. "That's not my domain," he said. "That's the domain of the campaign manager. I really haven't involved myself in that."
Rinfret's blunt style has alienated some fellow Republicans. Nassau County Controller Peter King, the GOP candidate for attorney general in 1986, described Rinfret's candidacy as "a lot of scattershot charges. He just casually announced he wanted to sell off the subways and bridges. That's a pretty heavy proposal to make. He had nothing to back it up. You have to show you're not a loose cannon."
Rinfret's credentials became an issue after the New York Times reported that he bills himself as "Dr. Rinfret" based on 18 months at the University of Dijon, where he earned a political economics degree that university officials say is equivalent to a U.S. master's degree. Rinfret says it is a misunderstanding and that the French degree did amount to a doctorate in 1951.
The Times also questioned Rinfret's claim that he had been a key adviser to President Richard M. Nixon and had turned down several Cabinet posts. Nixon later released a letter backing Rinfret's account.
Rinfret's family disputes -- he once sued his nephew for starting a firm with the Rinfret name -- have caused further embarrassment. Rinfret also sued his former son-in-law, Paul Moore, in 1984, a few months before his daughter Suzanne filed for divorce. He accused Moore of mismanaging a charter yacht that the two men bought as a tax shelter for $156,800.
Moore said in an affidavit that Rinfret was trying to force him to settle the divorce on unfavorable terms, and that "in addition to threatening to ruin me professionally and financially, he threatened me grievous bodily injury." Rinfret would not discuss the matter.
While Rinfret claims he voted as a Republican in last year's mayoral election, election records show he did not vote and is not a registered Republican. Rinfret said he is "puzzled" by the discrepancy.