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Cuomo's name floated for court seat Some consider him front-runner


WASHINGTON -- White House officials are actively floating the name of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo as a potential nominee for the Supreme Court in an apparent attempt to get the reaction of official Washington and special-interest groups.

The effort does not signal that Mr. Cuomo definitely will be the nominee, or that he is necessarily at the top of any official list, or even that the list of possible nominees is final, a White House official conceded.

"I don't have the sense that they are hot and heavy in the pursuit right now," one outside adviser said of the search for a new justice. President Clinton himself has reportedly not begun to focus on the selection of a nominee to replace retiring Justice Byron R. White.

Nevertheless, a White House official who asked not to be identified said yesterday that Mr. Cuomo's name is "on any list" that is now circulating at the White House. That official went on to make a series of arguments in Mr. Cuomo's favor, summing up this way: "No one will question his qualifications. He's young [60 years old]. He's vigorous intellectually."

Names of potential justices were compiled by Mr. Clinton's transition team even before he was sworn in, with the expectation that he would be able to make at least one appointment to the court.

All across Washington the common initial reaction to the Cuomo "leaks" was to read them as primarily a reaction-inviting gesture. As one Washington lawyer who maintains close contacts with the White House remarked: "This is very much a trial balloon. This White House does seem to operate a lot by trial balloon."

But that attorney added that it was his "distinct impression" that it was too early to start talking about front-runners, although the Wall Street Journal portrayed Mr. Cuomo that way yesterday.

What was not clear, at least among the circle of outside advisers who are expected to wield influence on the selection process, was whether the effort was designed to strengthen Mr. Cuomo's chances or to sink them -- or just to make a gesture to Mr. Cuomo to assure him that he is being considered.

If the effort was intended to aid Mr. Cuomo's chances, it seemed to be having some of that effect, among at least one surprise source. Former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, a prominent conservative Republican, said that Mr. Cuomo's selection would be "a smart move" and "a wise choice on President Clinton's part," according to Hearst News Service.

"He deserves to be confirmed," Mr. Weber added.

The vacancy will open on the court this summer when the current term ends and Justice White's retirement takes effect. Speculation about a successor has been rampant here since Mr. White's announcement earlier this month.

Although the first guessing to emerge after Justice White disclosed his plans was that Mr. Clinton would pick a minority group member, a woman or perhaps, a woman who is a member of a minority group, those close to the process say that may no longer be the greatest likelihood.

The new round of discussion about Mr. Cuomo, one outside adviser to the White House said, "makes me think that white males [and] everybody is in the hopper" at this stage in the selection process.

Mr. Cuomo reportedly has told intimates repeatedly that he has long had a strong desire to be on the court. He has figured in speculation since the presidential election campaign last year, when his name was the only one Mr. Clinton mentioned when discussing potential nominees.

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