WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party has been a basket case in New York for the last 20 years. The party nominee for governor four years ago, a politically obscure economist named Pierre Rinfret, ran a campaign against Mario Cuomo so inept it gave amateurism a bad name.
But this year there seems to be at least a realistic chance Republicans can make a serious challenge to Cuomo's quest for a fourth term -- serious enough to test the time-honored conviction among politicians that a forceful and vivid personality can be the dominant factor in any political campaign.
Opinion polls in New York show the Democratic governor far more vulnerable than he has ever been. His approval rating is running below 40 percent in some surveys, and the figures on those who believe he deserves to be re-elected are similarly puny. After 12 years in Albany, he seems the quintessential example of the incumbent who has been around too long and is now facing a disgruntled electorate.
But Cuomo is not your run-of-the-mine politician. He has shown repeatedly that he is capable of winning the support of voters who don't always agree with him on issues, even such emotional ones as his opposition to the death penalty.
Like another New York governor a generation ago, the late Nelson A. Rockefeller, he has become a celebrity bordering on being an institution, not just another politician.
It is that quality that has made the New Yorker -- again like Rockefeller before him -- a national figure who might have been a formidable candidate for president if he could have brought himself to seize on the right opportunity to compete.
This year, however, things are different. After 20 years of atrophy ever since Rockefeller left with his money to become vice president -- the Republicans seem to have put together a ticket that can be taken seriously, in large measure because of the efforts of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and an aggressive state party chairman, William Powers.
Cuomo's challenger is state Sen. George Pataki of Peekskill, a 48-year-old conservative who is still little known to New York voters but certainly no joke.
And the party has avoided the most obviously self-defeating division by persuading Herbert London, the candidate of the Conservative Party in 1990 and a competitor of Pataki for the Republican endorsement this year, to join the ticket as the candidate for comptroller -- thus assuring Pataki both the Republican and Conservative lines on the ballot.
Pataki still faces a Republican primary challenge in September from Richard Rosenbaum, a Rochester lawyer and former state party chairman during the Rockefeller era. But Rosenbaum's appeal is directed at Republican liberals and moderates, and they have become a distinct minority when compared to the conservatives who make up the core of D'Amato's following and perhaps now the Pataki constituency.
But the campaign will be far less a judgment about Pataki and conservatism than a referendum on Cuomo. Indeed, Pataki and his running mate for lieutenant governor, teacher and writer Elizabeth McCaughey, emerged from the party's state convention last month running on the line that "it's Mario Cuomo's fault" -- meaning just about anything that makes New Yorkers angry these days.
Cuomo has dominated the political landscape in the state ever since 1982, when he defeated then Mayor Ed Koch for the gubernatorial nomination and went on to edge out a Republican, Lewis Lehrman, who spent some $10 million on his own !c campaign.
But he has been through one fiscal crisis after another -- caused, he contends, largely by national economic conditions beyond his control -- and one controversy after another that have added political scar tissue.
The governor has changed with the times, at least to a degree. For example, although he is viewed nationally as a conventional liberal, he has been taking a tough line on crime by calling for a ban against assault weapons, three-strikes-and-you're-out for habitual felons and life sentences without the possibility of parole as his answer to the death penalty.
But in the end the future of Mario Cuomo rests on whether his personal force is enough to persuade voters who have gone sour on so many incumbents.