ALBANY -- Unlike his hero, the pensive intellectual St. Thomas More, Mario M. Cuomo may not be a man for all seasons.

Often at his most contentious during the best of times, the governor is being watched eagerly here to see whether he can remain serene during the dark winter that surely lies ahead for New York.

The giddy era of expansion and growth that marked much of Cuomo's first two terms has come to a shuddering halt. And as he gravely warned legislators when they convened here last week, New York faces fiscal pain so severe that it "will jar even the most experienced" among them.

"This is a wonderful year for raw truth," he told them. "We don't have any money." He told a hushed and nervous opening session of the Legislature that 1991 would have a pivotal effect on the state's history. He did not need to add that it surely will have a pivotal effect on his history as well.

Clearly, this be the most arduous, painful and highly publicized year of Cuomo's eight-year tenure, in part because the 58-year-old Democrat must decide again whether to run for president. The blame for New York's dizzying economic freefall -- a widening recession, a budget gap of nearly $4 billion and a credit rating better than that of only two other states -- has increasingly been laid at the doorstep of the executive mansion.

Cuomo has gained a perplexing reputation in New York even as he carries his eloquent message of empowerment and compassion to Washington and beyond. Here, he is seen as a sort of domestic Mikhail Gorbachev, whose words are so charismatic and convincing to those he does not govern that his unpopularity at home often is dismissed.

He has been called "Mariovellian" by those who marvel at his almost surreal ability to chastise New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) for the city's financial problems in a year when Cuomo hopes to balance the state budget for only the third time since he became governor.

"He is a man who thinks big thoughts," said Norman Adler, a Democratic political consultant who no longer works for Cuomo. "But his rhetoric is not always matched by his performance. The question you have to ask is: Should rhetoric be simply a yardstick of dreams, or is it something you need to turn into reality?"

The reality has been hard to achieve.

Cuomo's critics, while never shy, insist with increasing intensity that throughout the remarkable boom of the 1980s, the governor was too preoccupied with his own searching oratory on national issues to devote himself to the mundane task of balancing budgets or attempting the fiscal prudence he now seeks from New Yorkers in nearly every speech.

"You couldn't really ask for a better time to be governor than the past decade," said Steven Gold, a fiscal-policy expert and director of the Center for the Study of the States at State University of New York (SUNY). "He had a very strong wind at his back. It is absolutely irresponsible not to balance a budget in a robust economy. That is exactly why New York has such a poor credit rating. They earned it."

Cuomo does not bear the entire weight of the accumulated deficit. In this state, Republicans and Democrats often battle each other not about philosophy but simply about who will get more money for programs. New York spends more than every state on social programs, and even skeptics concede that it often accomplishes more.

But Cuomo's special power here, and his oft-repeated commitment to help citizens most in need -- and most expensively in need -- have left him walking a delicate path between gutting some of the nation's most adventurous social programs and seeming unable to make punishing decisions that help to define a leader.

"We are not going to be able to do everything we have to do," he said in an interview last week. "We know that. We are not going to do everything we would be able to do if Washington gave us help. That's for sure. But the question is will we surrender on what we've already done?

"Do you think we'll sell a single school from the SUNY system?" he continued, speaking characteristically as a man who is acutely aware of pitfalls but refuses to identify specific programs he would cut from a $29 billion budget. "Do you think we'll close a single mental institution that we now need? Do you think we will close parks? Do you think we will put tolls on roads that are now free? Do you think we will close the pre-K programs we now have?

"Let's not get captured now. This is not a presidential campaign where you will get fooled by slogans and 28-second commercials."

But the potential $4 billion deficit in the next fiscal year and diminishing tax revenue is expected to require layoffs and perhaps force Cuomo and the Legislature to scuttle entire programs.

The governor will have little room to maneuver. Two-thirds of state spending involves simply giving funds to localities. Much of it cannot be cut. Medicaid costs in New York City alone are $1.8 billion annually, one-third more than the police budget.

To help raise funds, Cuomo has relied on several budgetary gimmicks and one-shot revenues such as relying on surpluses in various agencies to cover the deficit. This year, with credit agencies exerting fierce scrutiny, that will be almost impossible.

Cuomo has attacked Washington consistently for sending ever fewer dollars to state governments while requiring them to pick up larger annual portions of social obligations such as paying to combat epidemics of AIDS and drug abuse that have hobbled many cities, perhaps none as much as New York.

He mentioned Washington nearly 40 times in his 62-minute State of the State speech, giving far less attention to the specific troubles of New York's municipalities and counties. But he insists that he cannot stop talking about Washington, as long as leaders there "turn their backs on the drug epidemic, declare victory and leave the problem to us."

"They are not only not doing it right," he said in response to a question about his apparent preoccupation with federal issues. "They are not doing it at all. And you're going to suggest to me that I should stop talking about Washington. To what end? If I solve our problems here . . . if I do all that I promise to do . . . none of that will be enough unless Washington does what it must do."

Cuomo insisted that he remains committed to his costly education programs and told the Legislature that he would cut nothing from the AIDS budget. Under Cuomo, New York has been one of few states to expand drug treatment and prevention programs dramatically. He has been harsh in his suggestions that federal drug policy gives only lip-service to such programs.

"The governor has truly delivered on his promises to both emphasize the need for treatment and prevention and to expand services," said Paul N. Samuels, executive vice president of the Legal Action Center, which advocates drug treatment and works with AIDS issues. "You can't find anyone who has been more enlightened, more willing to assault this drug problem with reason and responsibility."

Social-services advocates expressed concern about a bloodbath after Cuomo releases his budget next month. They know well that the only way he can hope to emerge from this legislative session as a vigorous presidential contender is to have hammered out a tough, reasonable budget that continues to support the neediest residents while pleasing skeptical credit markets.

"It's not going to be a pleasant dance," said Assembly Speaker Mel Miller (D-Brooklyn), who often finds himself to the left of the governor on expensive social issues. "If he can do it, well that will be wonderful. If he can't, I don't really want to think about the consequences."