WASHINGTON -- New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's embrace of Gov. Mario Cuomo won't solve all the Democratic incumbent's political problems by any means. The governor is still no better than an even bet in a strange year in which 12 years of experience is more of a burden than a blessing.
Moreover, no one who understands how politics works believes that endorsements mean a great deal in any direct way. Few voters make two-step decisions -- that is, decide to vote for a candidate because of someone else's judgment about that candidate. Perhaps the classic evidence of that was the way voters in six states turned out Republican senators in 1986 despite direct and personal appeals from President Ronald Reagan to re-elect them.
But the endorsement from the Republican mayor does help Cuomo immensely by underlining one of the prime arguments in his case for re-election -- that his Republican opponent, state Sen. George Pataki, is still an unknown quantity about whom reasonable people should harbor some doubts.
Indeed, Giuliani went further than he might have done by not just announcing his support for Cuomo but by making a point of trashing Pataki. The Republican nominee, he said, had "vacillated" and taken "ambiguous and inconsistent" positions on issues.
"I've come to the conclusion," said Giuliani, "that it is George Pataki who best personifies the status quo of New York politics -- a candidate taking as few positions as possible, all of them as general as possible, taking no risks and being guided and scripted by others."
The "others" would include most prominently, of course, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, for years a blood enemy to Giuliani within the Republican Party. And that line fits neatly with the Cuomo campaign's strategy of picturing Pataki as a candidate led by the hand of D'Amato, who dictated his nomination in the first place.
The endorsement has sting because there is always an element of risk in the voters' decision to choose a challenger over an incumbent in any campaign. Is the devil you don't know more dangerous than the one you do know?
In this instance, the doubts about Pataki must be serious to be convincing because the one assessment on which all the polls and politicians in New York are agreed is that Cuomo's own appeal has worn thin with the electorate. New Yorkers all seem to have laundry lists of complaints -- about crime, taxes, welfare, whatever -- and many of them have decided that the way to voice those complaints is to vote against the man in charge.
Indeed, the situation is not entirely different from the one that obtained in the New York City mayoral election last year. The voters, overwhelmingly Democratic, were uneasy about electing a Republican to City Hall but did so because they were so angry at the performance of the incumbent Democrat, David Dinkins.
The impact of the Giuliani endorsement isn't likely to be noticed among Republicans who are his constituents in the city; there are so few they hardly make a difference. But it could nourish doubts about Pataki among independents and Democrats tempted to stray from Cuomo this time around. And, perhaps more to the point, it could contribute to a picture of Cuomo gaining momentum in the final two weeks of the campaign.
In one area, however, the Giuliani endorsement could be counterproductive -- among African-American voters. Cuomo needs a large black turnout Nov. 8 to win the election and, toward that end, even has enlisted the help of Jesse Jackson, which doesn't come without a price among white voters and Jewish voters in particular. But black leaders in the city have not given Giuliani the same high marks he has received from whites for his first year in office and it is hard to imagine black voters taking advice from City Hall.
In the end there probably will never be a way to measure the effect of Rudy Giuliani's decision to risk his future as a Republican to help a Democrat. But if Mario Cuomo is re-elected narrowly, the mayor unquestionably will get the credit for "making the difference" -- not a bad position to be in when he goes to Albany to seek state money for the city.