NEW YORK -- This is the spin from Democratic politicians here: Republican gubernatorial candidate George Pataki may be ahead now. But when voters begin to really focus on choosing a governor, they will turn back to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Yesterday, Mr. Cuomo's candidacy got support from an unlikely source -- Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York crossed party lines to endorse the governor's bid for a fourth term.
The mayor's decision was a clear embarrassment to his fellow Republican, Mr. Pataki, but not necessarily of corresponding benefit to Mr. Cuomo, since there is reason to wonder if endorsements mean anything this year.
Mr. Cuomo, who is trailing by up to 10 points in some polls, is likely to gain from Herculean efforts to mobilize the Democratic vote in the final two weeks of the campaign.
But it is also apparent that the magic of his rhetoric has worn thin.
"What we need [from a governor] is more action and less blah, blah, blah," says John Akrides, a waiter in Queens. "That's Cuomo -- all blah, blah, blah."
Six months ago, the notion that Governor Cuomo would be threatened by an unknown state senator from Putnam County, just north of Westchester County, might have seemed laughable. But this is a different political year, and the assets that Mr. Cuomo brings to the table are no longer assets.
"It's Cuomo vs. Cuomo," he says with characteristic insouciance. "And I'm a big albatross."
Talking about President Clinton's troubles in making his case to the electorate, he says: "I have a little problem of my own wondering why, after 12 years, all they can remember is I have baggy eyes."
In fact, Mr. Cuomo's problem runs deeper. Opinion polls and street-smart politicians here agree that voters think government is too expensive and too ineffectual and that Mr. Cuomo, for all his personal magic, has the wrong answers.
Mr. Pataki's TV commercials touch sore nerves on taxes and crime.
One spot spells out a list of taxes and fees that have risen under the 12 years of a Democrat in Albany and ends with the slogan, "Too Liberal for Too Long."
Mr. Cuomo can make a case that he has a better record on taxes than the Republican ad suggests. But there is no way for the Democratic governor to escape his history as an adherent of activist government to solve social problems. Nor does Mr. Cuomo really try to do that.
On the contrary, explaining his decision to seek a fourth term, he talks about a child born in Buffalo today who may want to be a physicist and what needs to be done to give her the opportunities to achieve that goal.
Or he talks about children who live now in the neighborhood in Queens where he grew up with the opportunities that they now lack.
And Mr. Cuomo is one of the few politicians who haven't embraced the call for wholesale welfare reforms and don't believe that solving the problems of teen-age mothers of illegitimate children starts with blaming the young women.
Another Pataki TV commercial strikes at Mr. Cuomo on the crime issue. It shows the mother of a young man who was killed last summer by a paroled convict saying: "I blame it all on Cuomo and his policies, his liberal policies. Cuomo does not care about the victims of crime. He cares about the criminals."
The crime issue is a difficult one for Mr. Cuomo, who opposes capital punishment and has vetoed a death-penalty bill with clockwork regularity year after year. The Democrat has offered a plan for life without parole as an alternative. But the perception that he is soft on crime has been sharply drawn over the years.
Partial to blacks
It is an issue that touches another sore nerve for Democrats: the relationship between political leaders and blacks. Mr. Cuomo's own polls and focus groups find that white ethnic voters believe he has been too committed to helping the African-American community, at the expense of white taxpayers.
Harry Kesey, a truck driver in the Bronx, puts it bluntly: "All he cares about is helping those people with my money. Well, let's see if those people can get him back in office, because I sure as hell don't intend to help."
Mr. Cuomo must see the black vote maximized, particularly in New York City. To that end, he pushed hard for an endorsement from former Mayor David N. Dinkins, who delivered it, apparently grudgingly.
The governor went further when he brought the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson into the state to help stimulate black turnout.
Mr. Jackson has been poison with many Jewish voters in New York since the 1984 presidential campaign in which he referred to the city as "Hymietown."
But Mr. Cuomo's strategists decided that the help they could get from Mr. Jackson this year was worth the risk of opening old wounds.
For weeks, Mr. Cuomo has been in the position of seeking and exploiting endorsements, an approach he never had to rely on in the past.
His commercials include a spot in which an old rival, former Mayor Edward I. Koch, is shown mugging and saying: "Mario Cuomo doesn't have my sweet disposition, and we don't always agree on everything. Who does? Mario Cuomo is honest, he knows the ropes and he'll fight like hell for New York, and that's why I'm supporting him."
'Directed by others'
In endorsing Mr. Cuomo yesterday as "a better governor than George Pataki," Mr. Giuliani took a hard swipe at the Republican challenger, accusing him of "taking no risks and being guided, scripted and directed by others."
The key to the outcome appears to turn on whether the Cuomo campaign can succeed in raising enough doubts about the newcomer Mr. Pataki to make him an unacceptable risk Nov. 8.
The governor and his surrogates attack the Republican as too attractive to the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition -- and, most of all, too close to Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.
The Cuomo campaign has been running a commercial in which the conservative Republican senator is shown leading Mr. Pataki by the arm, apparently going through a crowd toward a podium, while an announcer says, "Everywhere Pataki goes, D'Amato leads him by the hand."
The commercial, officials in the campaign say, has moved Mr. Cuomo from a few percentage points behind to a few points ahead among voters who are considered most certain to go to the polls Nov. 8 -- a universe that should expand in the final two weeks.
Mr. Cuomo himself stresses the same theme, telling an editorial board the other day, for instance, that: "I want a governor who's not going to be led around by the hand."
Mr. Pataki professes to be undismayed. "People who know me," he says, "know that I'm an independent person." He adds, apparently more in sorrow than in anger: "It's incredibly sad that [Mr. Cuomo] is now down there distorting my record."
D'Amato's high negatives
Mr. D'Amato was the prime mover in seeing that Mr. Pataki became the party nominee. The senator has negatives as high or higher than those of Mr. Cuomo, even though he won re-election two years ago. So he makes an inviting target.
There are other imponderables. Mr. Pataki has advanced a plan to cut taxes by $5.6 billion to try to duplicate the success that another Republican, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, enjoyed in New Jersey a year ago. Mr. Cuomo derides the proposal, and polls show doubt about whether it could be carried out.
There is also the question of other candidates, notably B. Thomas Golisano, who is promising to spend $10 million of his own money on advertising. Were he to draw 3 or 4 percentage points, the conventional wisdom goes, it would come from the anti-Cuomo protest vote and would hurt Mr. Pataki. The same could be true of votes for Robert T. Walsh, the Right to Life Party nominee.
In the past, Mr. Cuomo didn't have to worry about such minor players. He was the prince of Albany, larger than life, the man with the golden tongue. Now he must worry about how many New Yorkers think it has all been blah, blah, blah.