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Bush and Cuomo Look Like Scorers in Next Big Game

March 06, 1986|RICHARD N. GOODWIN | Richard N. Goodwin is a writer and commentator in Concord, Mass.

The Boston weather, like a 30-year-old virgin, reveals its virtues reluctantly. The approaching end of frozen adversity is signaled not by sudden, flowered displays but through cabalistic rituals of renewed hope, accessible only to those whom long and patient endurance has initiated.

One recent morning, trying to suppress a chill shudder as I lifted the morning paper from the ice-clad walk outside my house, I glanced at a front page sharply illuminated by a coldly hostile sun and experienced a welcome shock of recognition: a young infielder for the Boston Red Sox leaping hopefully across the endless acres of Florida sun.

Spring training! Spring! The forbidden, half-forgotten word whose almost shouted repetition accompanied my swift, health-preserving return to the hydrocarbon warmth of my reading chair. Cold-numbed senses told me that it could not be true. But my senses lied. I knew from many repetitions of experience that soon, unbelievably, I would sit, comfortable in shirtsleeves, watching that same young man move easily across the nostalgic green of sun-drenched Fenway Park.

There were other, even more obscure, clues to the distant but now inevitable shift of seasons. Politicians, like baseball players, were on the move, the chief contenders already honing their skills for the confused and cacophonous season that would culminate two years hence--after the primary playoffs--in an eagerly observed contest for supremacy between Republican and Democratic champions.

The political spring, like baseball's training, is a time when the deceptive blossoms of hope are allowed, even encouraged, to abolish the almost certain prospect of a barren autumn. Even now, before the players have formally taken the field, the outlines of the next presidential contests are becoming clear.

For the Republicans: George Bush is almost uncatchable. The recent assault by a spokesman for the professional right wing--George F. Will--calling him Reagan's "lapdog" expressed little more than the mounting frustration of those who have consistently underestimated this formidable politician.

A refugee from the dwindling ranks of moderate Republican thought, Bush, from the moment of his inauguration as vice president, has pursued a consistent and sensible political strategy.

The right wing of the Republican Party, like the Democratic left, has greater influence on the process of nominations than on the result of a national election. Its members are the activists, the workers and the most important source of money. It was essential for Bush to gain enough confidence within this right wing to forestall a veto of his nomination. The only way to accomplish this was to marry himself without qualification to Ronald Reagan.

He has adhered to this strategy despite the frequent expression of contemptuous condescension that it has evoked--a steadfastness that is not some "preppy" weakness but the consequence of single-willed determination. He has been successful, having become the only candidate acceptable to all elements of the Republican Party. Jack Kemp may be the true loveof the right, Howard Baker a favorite of moderates. But Bush alone has strong roots in both camps.

For the Democrats: There are two serious candidates--Gary Hart and Mario Cuomo--and a multitude of officeholders who, imagining some non-existent vacuum at the top, see themselves following the path that was first marked by the unknown Jimmy Carter. But today that path is obstructed by both Hart and Cuomo, who constitute formidable and probably insurmountable obstacles to the hopes of the anonymous.

In politics, great opportunity usually knocks once. For Gary Hart that moment probably passed when, in 1984, he let the nomination revert to an almost defeated Walter Mondale. The restless, unending Democratic quest for new voices and fresh faces capable of arousing the wishful desire for past glory is moving, glacially, toward Cuomo.

Cuomo attained the mysterious bestowed rank of "national figure" with a single speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. He will begin the pursuit of the presidential nomination fresh from a landslide reelection as the governor of the country's once-most-powerful state. All of this is an important foundation for his candidacy, but the likelihood of success rests on his personal qualities. He is a man of generous intelligence, anchored values and a remarkably literate capacity to communicate these qualities to others. His deficiencies are of experience and knowledge, the easiest to compensate. Only a person who is ignorant of recent history would think brains and convictions essential to high office, but only a foolishly mistaken cynic would fail to understand the potential power of their appeal.

The pursuit of the presidency is unlike the contest for any other office. And Cuomo has yet to evidence a capacity to put together a national campaign that can endure the incredibly intense spotlight of presidential politics. If he can do that--and the question is decisive--the nomination is his.

My final predictions: In politics, Bush against Cuomo, with the edge to Bush in a country that, except in troubled times, normally votes Republican. As for baseball: the Boston Red Sox, of course. But when it comes to baseball I am a romantic.

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