Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo sets up his sermon with the good news: The lowest peacetime unemployment rate since he was born! The highest homeownership rate ever! Crime -- down. Welfare -- down. The familiar cadence is flowing now, with the precise diction of a classical actor and the twangy melody of a Queens cabbie: "The overall economy is fantastic! We've never seen euphoria like this!" Cuomo's olive-green eyes flash at his audience with just a hint of mischief. He knows exactly where he's leading it.

He's leading to dirt-poor Appalachian backwaters, to hope-crushed Indian reservations, to faded industrial cities like Newburgh -- the corners of the country left out of its historic economic boom. Cuomo has been delivering this sermon all over America, calling for a nationwide anti-poverty crusade, bemoaning the plight of the needy in a way that seems strangely off-message for a Clinton administration official. And if it also sounds like a campaign speech, well, he is on a campaign -- a campaign, he says, for the Americans left behind.

"I've seen places in this country where people have never heard of the Dow Jones," he says. "I've seen the reality of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Gary, Indiana, and Newburgh, New York. And I know, if the American people saw this reality, they'd do something about it."

Cuomo says there are two purposes to his noisy campaign: to draw attention to the gaping holes in the booming economy, and to persuade Americans that his "reinvented" Department of Housing and Urban Development can help fill them. Last month, he released a report titled "Now Is the Time: Places Left Behind in the New Economy," calling for more aid for economic development in depressed areas, more housing vouchers, more redevelopment of troubled housing projects, more money for programs from Youth Opportunity Areas to Economic Development Initiatives to 21st Century Learning Centers. And his bosses have joined his crusade: On Monday, President Clinton and Vice President Gore appeared with Cuomo in the dusty border town of Edinburg, Tex., and echoed Cuomo's people-left-behind themes.

Skeptics point out that except for welfare reform, the administration has shied away from poverty issues since the Republican resurgence of 1994; Democratic pollsters have warned Clinton that voters associate "poverty" with "liberal." And some of Cuomo's critics grouse that the real purpose of his campaign is to enhance his own public image and political career, to position himself as the new Robert F. Kennedy, the father-in-law he never met.

Cuomo says he's just using his bully pulpit to try to resurrect progressive politics after years of failures. He says someone needs to shine a spotlight on lingering problems in East St. Louis, where the poverty rate is 44 percent, or on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where the unemployment rate is 73 percent. And he says someone needs to spread the word that his redesigned HUD can help solve those problems.

"Sure, I'm doing PR. The PR is the most important thing I do," said Cuomo, 41, the son and campaign manager of former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo (D). "I'm trying to get out a message that people need to hear, and I'm fighting 30 years of negative stereotypes about this agency. The PR is the answer. Eighty percent of this battle is communications."

Still, it is jarring to see Clinton's housing secretary -- and a close Gore ally rumored to be a potential chief of staff in a Gore administration -- raising the alarm that America's affordable housing shortage is worse than ever, that 600,000 Americans are homeless every night, that children sit in feces in Chicago public housing. And it invites questions about what the administration and Cuomo's department have done to solve the problems in his report; HUD's best-known recent initiative has been an effort to tear down, not to build, 100,000 units of public housing.

"We're delighted to see that the secretary has finally discovered the forgotten people," said Jim Grow, staff attorney for the National Housing Law Project, choosing his words with care. "Let's say we'd rather not dwell on what he's been doing before now."

Cuomo says he has been helping the poor ever since 1986, when he founded a nonprofit group called Housing Enterprises for the Less Privileged. Under his direction, HELP built more than 1,000 transitional homes for the homeless, while challenging the liberal orthodoxy that homelessness was just a housing problem. Cuomo came to HUD as an assistant secretary in 1993, and used the HELP "continuum of care" philosophy to revamp federal homelessness programs, providing psychiatric help, drug treatment and job training as well as shelter.

At the start of Clinton's second term, Cuomo was rewarded with the department's top job, after his boss, Henry Cisneros, left to deal with an independent counsel's investigation. So far, he says, he's focused mostly on curing HUD's management incompetence.

For three decades, HUD has been a notorious symbol of welfare-state government run amok, better known for sweetheart deals, wasteful programs and bad management than for improving the lives of the poor. Republicans almost eliminated the agency after taking over Congress in 1994, relenting only when Cisneros agreed to slash its staff and tear down some of its worst projects. But Cuomo has tripled the number of landlords barred from doing business with HUD. He is integrating its 89 computer systems into one. He has compiled the first list of the 6 million HUD residences, and is conducting the first inspection of every HUD project.

It is not a sexy crusade, but the General Accounting Office recently found that HUD has made "credible progress" reforming its finances, and the agency just got its first "clean audit."

The GAO still describes the agency as "high-risk," and even Cuomo admits he's "not bumping up against management nirvana." But while he has alienated some congressional Republicans, he did get them to approve a $25.5 billion budget last year, HUD's largest in a decade. This year, he persuaded Clinton to request $28 billion, and although Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) calls that "totally unrealistic," there is a sense that HUD is no longer fighting to survive.

"Some people have issues with Andrew's style, but the question is whether he's effective," Cisneros said. "He's upped the budget. He's made things happen. And now he's engaging the nation in a debate about how we use our newfound prosperity. In my book, that's effective."

Cuomo says that the nation's rightward shift and HUD's troubled image have prevented him from launching any grand campaigns until now. But he has advanced the administration's two major urban initiatives: its 31 "empowerment zones," which have pumped billions of dollars into depressed cities, and its 104 "HOPE VI" grants, the effort to raze ugly high-rise projects and replace them with smaller mixed-income developments. And Cuomo did get Congress to approve 50,000 new housing vouchers last year, the first new subsidies in five years.

But as Cuomo often points out, 5.3 million Americans still qualify for affordable housing but don't get it, and as the strong economy boosts rents, the problem is only getting worse. During the Clinton administration, the nation's stock of affordable housing has continued to decline; since 1996, for example, HUD has ended subsidies at about 100,000 privately owned apartments, and the agency's drive to stabilize projects by moving in working families has also limited opportunities for the poorest of the poor. Cuomo blames the shortages on the GOP, but critics say the buck must stop with the administration.

"The next HUD scandal is the disappearance of low-income housing," grouses Andre Shashaty, editor and publisher of Affordable Housing Finance, an industry magazine. "Cuomo is just a PR fiend. Cuomo this. Cuomo that. . . . It's all politics."

Cuomo has been involved in politics since he was a teenager; he ran his father's first gubernatorial campaign when he was 24. But the accusations that he's trying to promote his own political career by promoting the poor just drive him crazy. He did, after all, turn down a chance to run for Senate in New York in 2000, before Hillary Rodham Clinton was even thinking about the race. He was just sued by two top Democratic fund-raisers for canceling one of their HUD contracts. He says he doesn't know if he'll ever run for elective office, but he says the notion that Mario Cuomo's son would talk about the poor for selfish political reasons is completely ridiculous.

"Politically, there are many issues that would serve me better, and few that would serve me worse," said Cuomo, who also has been rumored as a possible gubernatorial candidate in New York in 2002. "When you advocate for the poorest people in this country . . . you're going to end up looking like an old-style liberal. That's what happened to my old man."

Cuomo says he has one fear about his new campaign: that his message will be obscured by attacks on the messenger. He certainly does have critics: Republicans who say he's too slick and too liberal, liberals who say he's too slick and not liberal enough, landlords angry about his crackdown on abuses, HUD employees angry about his job cuts, an inspector general who accused him of trying to undermine her, and some people who simply don't like him. He is smart, charismatic and passionate, but critics say he can also be controlling, thin-skinned and arrogant, enforcing his will through a small coterie of aggressive loyalists.

But some advocates -- not all of them Cuomo fans -- believe he may be the perfect spokesman for the poor, an eloquent speaker with media savvy and political connections. Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, says the Clinton administration has been a major disappointment on poverty issues, but she believes Cuomo can turn things around.

"The one main thing that gives me hope is the secretary becoming so outspoken," Crowley said. "There's never going to be a major change without someone political out front. I can't tell you how important it is to have Andrew Cuomo talking about these issues."

Newburgh, a scenic but rundown city of 26,000 residents on the Hudson River, was the perfect setting for Cuomo's message about mid-sized cities that have lost their industrial bases. There were rows of boarded-up Victorians and abandoned shops that reflected Newburgh's fall from glory. But there was also an array of HUD-funded development projects that city officials believe are jump-starting the city's recovery, by creating jobs, stabilizing neighborhoods and leveraging private investment.

Today, Newburgh is what Cuomo calls a "double-trouble city," with unemployment and poverty rates 50 percent higher than the national average. "You see places like Newburgh and you say, where's the wonderful economy I read about?" Cuomo said. "These cities are below the radar screen, and they're struggling. How do I make people see that?"

But Cuomo also wants people to see Newburgh's baby steps toward rebirth. Unemployment has dropped from 13.4 percent in 1992 to below 7 percent now. City officials say that would not have happened if HUD had not designated Newburgh as one of its 95 "enterprise communities," a mini-empowerment zone with a pipeline to about $3 million in loans and tax breaks. That money has been used up, but the city is taking advantage of other HUD funds as well.

So on his city tour, Cuomo also took a walk along Landers Street, a former dead zone where a developer is renovating 32 historic Civil War-era rowhouses with federal tax breaks. He saw the city's three new riverfront developments, the first since urban renewal 30 years ago, and met another developer who is converting a crumbling foundry into condominiums. He passed a new HUD-funded 61-unit assisted living facility; a HUD-funded elderly day-care center is under construction next door. And he announced a $1.4 million loan for a new industrial park, at a community meeting in a new furniture store that received enterprise community funding.

"We had more building in the last three years than in the last century, and HUD played a huge role," said city manager William Ketcham. "If the aid stopped, we'd just collapse."

At one of his stops, Yedda Parker, 32, a former welfare mother, told Cuomo she used to live in squalor with her eight children before getting a job and a renovated town house through the enterprise community. "I'm living a new life now," she said. "It's a miracle." Actually, it's simple, Cuomo replied. First people need to see how bad things are. Then they need to see that sometimes, government can help change that.

"If you put those two pieces of information together, that is TNT. It's dynamite," Cuomo said. "But this country hasn't made a total commitment to its Newburghs yet. We'll see."

`Places Left Behind'

In a recent report, HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo highlighted parts of the country left out in the recent economic boom. Here are some of the poverty hot spots:

Places left behind in rural America

Mississippi Delta: The region, which extends across seven states and has historically suffered from extreme poverty and high unemployment, continues to struggle.

The Colonias: Informally settled and mostly unincorporated communities in a four-state region along the U.S.-Mexico border are home to large numbers of immigrants who have low-paying jobs when they can find work at all.

Indian country: Native Americans have long endured high rates of joblessness and poverty and, despite some economic successes on reservations, face challenges in attracting private investment and creating new jobs.

Appalachia: The 12-state region continues to reel from the decline in mining and other industries that once loomed large in the national economy.

Struggling small and mid-size cities

Most high-poverty central cities are small or mid-sized. Here are the cities with the 10 highest poverty rates.

Poverty rate, 1995

Benton Harbor, Mich. 64.3%

East St. Louis, Ill. 44.3

Camden, N.J. 44.2

Miami 42.8

Augusta, Ga. 42.7

Brownsville, Tex. 39.9

Fort Pierce, Fla. 39.3

San Benito, Tex. 39.0

Mission, Tex. 37.5

Hartford, Conn. 35.2

SOURCE: "Now Is the Time: Places Left Behind in the New Economy"

CAPTION: Andrew M. Cuomo wants to call attention to "reinvented" HUD.

CAPTION: HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), right, tour Newburgh, N.Y., earlier this week.