Cuomo Cranks; McCall’s Guru: ‘This Is Over’

At the first debate between the Democratic gubernatorial candidates on Aug. 18, Andrew Cuomo exuded kindness and generosity of spirit. He called his opponent, State Comptroller Carl McCall, a “good man,” even as he politely asked him to cease what he characterized as attacks on the Cuomo family. Afterwards, he told reporters, “I have never said anything unkind about Carl McCall, I have never said anything unkind about his family, and I never will.”

The very next day, Mr. Cuomo was back to his famously aggressive self, attacking Mr. McCall for being part of the problem in Albany. “How can you now say the budget is terrible when you were part of it?” he demanded.

Trailing in the polls just three weeks from the Sept. 10 primary, Mr. Cuomo is veering from one tactic to the next, portraying himself as the wounded party even as he seeks new lines of attack against his opponent. Given his current circumstances, a little panic is understandable: The press has been battering the former Housing Secretary, mocking his combative reputation. Governor George Pataki’s Republican backers, who had seemed obsessed with him earlier in the campaign, are now ignoring him. And Mr. McCall’s supporters are so confident that they’re no longer going through the usual motions of portraying themselves as underdogs.

“This thing is over,” top McCall advisor Bill Lynch told The Observer. “It’s over, and we haven’t even shifted into high gear yet.”

Of course, poll numbers are fluid, and Mr. Cuomo’s bloated deficit-shown at 16 points in a recent Quinnipiac University poll-could easily shrink in the coming days. But Mr. Cuomo’s frustration has been increasingly evident. For example, the high point of the generally uneventful television debate was when moderator Marcia Kramer goaded Mr. Cuomo into attacking her personally. At other recent events, seemingly routine questions brought clear expressions of Mr. Cuomo’s indignation and annoyance to the surface.

For example, at a recent appearance at a health clinic in East Harlem, Mr. Cuomo joked, smiled and clasped hands with the female officers who ran the place. He spoke with convincing passion about the need to do more for New York’s poor, uninsured and homeless people than either the Governor or “Albany”-a veiled reference, in part, to Mr. McCall-has managed to do. When a reporter asked him why, during his four years as Housing Secretary in the Clinton administration, he hadn’t done more for the people he claimed had been neglected by Mr. McCall and Mr. Pataki, his pleasant demeanor vanished.

“I did,” he said, suddenly glaring. “The premise of the question is mistaken.” Another glare. “I did do more.”

Mr. Cuomo is supposed to be accustomed to this kind of give-and-take by now. After all, he’s had plenty of practice fending off questions about his contention that he’s an outsider who, by virtue of his lack of ties to the party establishment, would be able to accomplish more than either Mr. McCall or Mr. Pataki. When he portrays himself that way, reporters or skeptics (often the same) invariably point out the fact that he is the son of a three-term Governor of New York and served as a close adviser to his father.

Cynicism is one thing. But Mr. Cuomo has also had to get used to something far more insidious: apathy. He is running for Governor during a difficult time for the state and city, a time when it might have been easy to stir up voters against the status quo-were it not for Sept. 11. As it is, Mr. Cuomo has tried to contrast his reformist, let’s-blow-up-Albany zeal with what he sees as the placid, contented demeanor of both the Governor and the Comptroller. And he has gotten mixed reviews.

Mr. Lynch contends that it’s a fundamentally misguided strategy. “Carl’s style is a lot like Pataki’s style, so I’m not sure what makes the Cuomo people think that the young go-getter stuff is going to appeal to voters,” said Mr. Lynch. “Voters are not looking for a style change-they’re looking for people who are more sympathetic to their plight. That’s where I think Carl has a leg up.”

The Cuomo campaign disagrees. “The voters of New York do want someone with energy and new ideas and who gets results,” said Cuomo campaign manager Josh Isay. “Voters don’t want the Pataki-McCall lack of results. They want real results for a change. If it’s true that Democratic voters want someone who’s like George Pataki, then we’re guaranteed to lose in November.”

Change in an election is one thing-but what of change within the campaign itself? As the campaign progressed, Mr. Cuomo has rolled out a blizzard of new proposals for tax reform, job creation, corporate reform and a host of other issues, in an effort to contrast his manic energy with the more deliberate style of Mr. McCall. But for all the bright innovations, no single Cuomo proposal stands out as a signature issue. There is, apparently, a fine line between dynamism and aimlessness, and the whole idea-factory theme has left some of his supporters wishing for something a little more simple.

“I’m surprised at how disorganized this campaign has been,” said a major supporter. “It’s like there’s no focus, and no one telling us what page we’re supposed to be on. They’re supposed to be saying, ‘O.K., this is what we’re doing today. We’re going negative; we’re not going negative.’ But there isn’t. At this point, I don’t even know what to say when someone asks me why I’m supporting Andrew.”

Of course, the primary election is still three weeks away-which, as Michael Bloomberg proved, is long enough to erase even a seemingly insurmountable lead. Mr. Cuomo’s supporters maintain that once voters begin paying attention to the campaign, they will find their candidate attractive and will go to the polls for him. They’re also hoping that Mr. McCall commits some sort of major gaffe late in the game, like when he handed the Cuomo campaign an issue recently by saying that Mr. Cuomo had “run home for Daddy” by bringing the ex-Governor into the campaign.

But Mr. Cuomo will have to improve upon his own record on that score: Some of his early scene-stealing moves, like bailing out on the state Democratic convention, did little to help him in the long run. Others, like his surprise declaration that Mr. Pataki had merely “held [Rudy Giuliani’s] coat” after Sept. 11, hurt him badly. Either way, Mr. Cuomo will be faced with some disadvantages between now and primary day that are far more fundamental than bad press.

The Party’s Choice

Mr. McCall, the near-unanimous choice of the state Democratic establishment, will have virtually every local political organization working to get his supporters to the polls on primary day. He has a phone-book-sized list of endorsements. And he has a vast majority of the support from those labor unions that haven’t endorsed Mr. Pataki, who remains a clear favorite to win re-election.

What’s more, political professionals who do polling for various candidates around the state have been saying for weeks that Mr. McCall has been gaining in popularity among many voting blocs that Mr. Cuomo needs-especially Jews, a key group in Democratic primaries. “In the polling I do for State Senate races, I can see that Jews are adhering very strongly to McCall,” said consultant Norman Adler. “But I can also see that McCall has been growing everywhere. Andrew’s negatives have just stayed amazingly high, and that’s clearly helping Carl.”

For now, despite any tweaking and adjustments being made by his campaign, all Mr. Cuomo can do is keep plugging away. On the day that he went to the health center in East Harlem, Mr. McCall was upstate speaking to local Democrats and receiving yet another elected official’s endorsement. Mr. Pataki had just wrapped up an event two blocks away-ostensibly a non-campaign, non-political event-where he’d announced $2.3 million worth of state money for North General Hospital, whose staff and doctors packed into the lobby to cheer wildly as Harlem Democratic officials showered the Governor with praise.

At Mr. Cuomo’s event, there wasn’t much of an audience other than the usual contingent of political reporters. As Mr. Cuomo spoke about the need to address a burgeoning homeless problem in New York, an aide passed out a letter attacking the McCall campaign for allegedly violating campaign-finance law. Mr. Cuomo pressed on, moving from subject to subject, even echoing at one point the Mayoral campaign of former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer by talking about “the other New York.”

At the end of the event, several young female hospital staffers emerged from their offices to watch as he walked towards an elevator with Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, one of his top Latino supporters. As the politicians boarded the elevator, one of the staffers yelled: “Vote for Powell!” They started chanting: “Powell! Powell! Powell!”

Mr. Powell pointed to the man next to him. “Cuomo!” he said.

“Cuomo! Cuomo! Cuomo!” they answered. The elevator doors closed. They looked at each other and laughed.