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POLITICS : N.Y. Governor's Contest Shaping Up as Liberalism's Last Stand : Seeking his 4th term, Mario Cuomo is running the race of his life. His ideology and record are key campaign issues.


NEW YORK — Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, one of the last surviving icons of American liberalism and a man many Democrats had thought surely would one day lead their party from the White House, today is battling to save his political career from extinction.

At 62, Cuomo is regarded outside New York as the last governing liberal, the leading torch-bearer for what remains of that once politically potent faith in the problem-solving abilities of activist government.

But at home, as he seeks a fourth term in Albany, he is in danger of being driven from public life by a little-known Republican state senator named George Pataki, whose principle strength appears to be that he is not Mario Matthew Cuomo.

A direct heir to the New Deal philosophy that an earlier New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, used to define the modern Democratic Party, Cuomo reflects in his own background and beliefs the diverse alliance of social and ethnic groups that dominated big-state politics for more than a generation.

But these doctrines and forces are in decline in New York as almost everywhere else. Not only have many voters grown cynical about the problem-solving ability of government, many now care more about making the society around them safer than about making it gentler. And the old alliance of labor unions, immigrants, ethnic groups and liberal intellectuals has lost political cohesion and crusading energy.

The result for Cuomo has been a sharp slide in popular support. A new poll released last week by the widely respected Marist Institute of Public Opinion showed Cuomo trailing Pataki by 44% to 38% among registered voters. That amounts to nearly a statistical dead heat because the poll has a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, but it still represents a stunning loss of support for Cuomo.

Just as troubling from the governor's point of view, the survey of 900 registered voters showed that Cuomo's approval rating in the state he has governed since 1982 is barely above 30% and that three of five New Yorkers believe their state is headed in the wrong direction.

So the contest here shapes up as liberalism's last stand. And Cuomo's Republican foes view him as a sort of latter-day Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who is about to lose his political scalp.

"We are going to win the race on Nov. 8 and there is going to be no fourth term for Mario Cuomo," Pataki told a boisterous crowd of about 300 GOP loyalists in Hicksville in Nassau County recently.

"All the Democrats where I work are going to vote for Pataki," claimed one of the guests, Beatrice Larucca, from nearby Levittown, who is collections manager for a bank. "They want the death penalty," she said, referring to Cuomo's longstanding opposition to capital punishment, which Pataki advocates. "And they are just tired of Cuomo."

Exacerbating Cuomo's problem is continued anxiety about the state's economy. Despite the gains made in the last 18 months as the nation has pulled out of recession, about 60% of those surveyed by the Marist Institute said they believe their state is still in a slump.

"Things have gotten better only slowly. And people aren't sure they are going to stay that way," Cuomo campaign chairman John Marino said in an interview. "That's true not only in New York but all around the country."

Yet Cuomo clearly has not tired of being governor. In the face of adversity he displays the same energy and will that has made him a power in the nation's second-largest state for more than a decade and the beau ideal of liberal Democrats around the country.

"This is one of the most innovative and most exciting schools in the city," Cuomo told a reporter recently as he bounded up the steps of Intermediate School 218 in Inwood. "Keep your eyes open," he urged. "These kids and teachers have great ideas."

Inwood is one of many New York neighborhoods that have been ravaged by poverty and neglect. The governor was there to accept a $10-million federal grant to help schools better prepare their students to take jobs and start businesses.

And to give Cuomo an extra boost, the Clinton Administration had dispatched Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich to deliver the grant personally.

"The governor has set a national standard for an active government, applying new ideas to improve everybody's life," Reich declared.

Cuomo's campaign challenge is twofold. On one hand he must convince New York's middle-class moderate voters that he does not fit the image of irresponsible spender and taxer that the Republicans have carved out for him. On the other, he must stir enough enthusiasm among the New York Democratic Party's remaining liberal cadres--minorities, union members, feminists and the like--to get them to the polls.

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