CONCORD, N.H. -- A campaign to persuade voters to write in the name of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York has added a fresh -- and potentially significant -- variable to the Democratic presidential primary contest here.
At the least, the movement could threaten the continued viability of two or three of the active candidates whose names are on the ballot if they end up running behind an inactive write-in candidate after they have spent months on personal campaigning and building their organizations. At the most, it could be the first step in a party-polarizing contest over the nomination that might last late into the spring.
The National Draft Cuomo Committee, an ad hoc group based in Chicago and operating out of a second-floor downtown office here, has just mailed 75,000 post cards to New Hampshire Democratic households spelling out the steps that need to be taken to write in Mr. Cuomo's name on the primary ballot Feb. 18. There are four versions tailored to reflect differences in procedures in communities that use paper ballots, voting machines or electronic voting devices.
The local press attention given to the movement -- helped along by a paid advertisement in the Union Leader of Manchester, the hTC only newspaper with statewide circulation -- already appears to have put the New York governor into the picture. A tracking poll conducted by the American Research Group, a Manchester poll taker, found 13 percent of Democrats professing an intention to write in Mr. Cuomo's name.
That put him third among Democrats, behind Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas with 31 percent and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts with 19 percent, but ahead of Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, each of whom had 9 percent, and former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California, with 4 percent. Most of the poll was taken, moreover, before the post cards had been delivered, suggesting that the Cuomo write-in may be a growth stock.
In most elections, the notion of a serious write-in campaign is fanciful. But there is a long history of write-in successes here. In 1964 four young volunteers put together an unauthorized campaign for Henry Cabot Lodge, then ambassador to South Vietnam, in the Republican primary, and he defeated the two candidates whose names appeared on the ballot -- Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. Richard M. Nixon ran a close fourth, also on write-in votes. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson won the Democratic primary with 49 percent in write-ins, although he was widely judged the true loser when Eugene J. McCarthy received 42 percent.
Write-in campaigns were easier in that era because most of the voting was done by paper ballot.
Mr. Cuomo announced Dec. 20 that he would not run this year because of his problems in reaching a New York state budget agreement with Republican legislators there. But the New York governor has carefully avoided dismissing the draft movement out of hand or ruling himself permanently and irrevocably out of the race.
The key to its potential would seem to be whether the active candidates in the field here are able to enlist enough positive support to make a write-in seem to be an empty gesture.
The other factor in the equation is the clear evidence of hostility between Mr. Clinton, the acknowledged front-runner of the moment, and Mr. Cuomo. If the write-in were impressive enough to draw the New Yorker into the campaign, the result could be a bitter struggle that would divide the party along both regional and ideological lines.