The New Mario Scenario

It's that time again when Democrats start dreaming of the Mario scenario. The latest fantasy has the New York governor announcing for the presidency early next year, soon enough to clear the field of any other candidates (including Jesse Jackson). Then, in a triumphal march through the primaries, candidate Cuomo would subject George Bush to his verbal pyrotechnics. Voters would be dazzled by the contrast between Cuomo's soulful poetry and Bush's fractured syntax. "He's already made S&Ls sweet music for the Democrats," says Cuomo aide Brad Johnson. The fall election would be like old times, with the Democrats riding a populist wave of discontent against the GOP. Cuomo's running mate would be Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran with a Congressional Medal of Honor. Democrats are gleeful at the thought of Kerrey debating Dan Quayle, who served in the National Guard rather than go to Vietnam.

The trouble with dream scenarios is that they rarely come true. The Democrats worried about an empty field, are now daring to dream--a dramatic turnabout in the conventional wisdom. With Bush on the defensive on taxes and the savings scandal, a challenge in '92 no longer looks like a quixotic crusade. Conservative GOP analyst Jeffrey Bell thinks that if Cuomo signals his intentions soon enough he could be "the first Democrat since FDR to run unopposed for the nomination." Last week, the Democrats picked New York as their '92 convention site. Some candidates might quake at being associated with the city'sbonfire of racial and class tensions. But Cuomo may have the political dexterity to turn adversity into virtue if he can tie these woes to Republican policies. Kevin Phillips has given Democrats inspiration with his prediction of a populist revolt based on the growing realization among middle-class voters that the rich benefited from a redistribution of wealth during the '80s. "When I say it, it's pap from a mushyheaded liberal from the Northeast," Cuomo says. "When he says it, it's stunning because he has credibility."

Cuomo is typically coy about his presidential intentions. "I'm too uncertain to rule anything out," he told NEWSWEEK. And indeed there is a good case for delay. Certain to win election to a third term as governor, Cuomo would need to put some distance between his January 1991 inauguration and a presidential declaration. Spring '91 would be the earliest he could decently announce; Democratic realists shudder at heat Cuomo would take. With New York's economy in a slump he would be vulnerable on key bread-and-butter issues. "He's too juicy a target," says a GOP operative. As the standard-bearer in any war against the rich, Cuomo's finances would be heavily scrutinized. Under pressure from the New York Post, he recently released his net worth for the first time: $600,000, which prompted the tabloid to declare him "half a millionaire." Cuomo's wife, Matilda, stands to gain a still-undetermined sum from the estate of her deceased father.

Then there is the matter of Cuomo's personality. "He so thin-skinned, you really can't tell him he looks pale," says a Democratic consultant. Asked whether he cried at the June wedding of his son, Andrew, to Kerry Kennedy, Cuomo responded with characteristic testiness and Jesuitical evasion. "Do you mean tears?" he replied. "Do you have to have tears to cry? Can you cry internally?" Democratic Party spokesman Michael McCurry envisions "a great parlor sport to see who can goad him into saying something he shouldn't." Cuomo is already speaking out of school in advising congressional Democrats to "deliver the hard news" on taxes and cuts in entitlement programs even if Bush backs off. A politician who lives to defy conventional wisdom, Cuomo thinks the Democrats can beat the tax rap by showing leadership. "One caution," he chuckles. "No one agrees with me."

all Bush has to do to win in '92 is to take the tough stands. The outcome of budget talks later this summer may provide a key test. Millsaps College history professor Robert McElvaine, author of a Cuomo biography, says the governor has "a visceral disregard for Bush as someone who knows better than he's doing." Cuomo is currently content to let Democrats spin out their fantasies. Unlike four years ago, he is not actively discouraging the speculation. But he's in no hurry either. The way he sees it, getting in the race would be doing Bush a favor. "The big disadvantage Bush has now is he has no opponent. He has to run against himself and expectations." For now, Cuomo is enjoying his quadrennial renaissance. He dismisses talk of presidential deadlines with a quote from his mother: "Between now and then, a pope will be born."