Cuomo Vadis? Now He’ll Hold McCall’s Coat

After a disappointing gubernatorial campaign that left his defeat in the Democratic primary election a near-certainty, former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo dropped out of the race on Sept. 3 and threw his support to his opponent, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall.

Mr. Cuomo, who was trailing by double digits in the polls, announced his decision at an emotional press conference in the New York Hilton. It was a humbling turn of events for Mr. Cuomo, the son of a former Governor, whose supposedly boundless energy and political connections had led many political experts to predict that he would defeat his low-key rival. Instead, Mr. Cuomo tearfully admitted defeat before an array of top Democrats, including Bill Clinton, Congressman Charles Rangel, his father, Mario Cuomo, and the rest of the Cuomo family.

“I will vote for Carl McCall on Sept. 10, and I urge all Democrats to vote for Carl McCall,” Mr. Cuomo said at the press conference. Explaining why he was taking the nearly unprecedented step of dropping out of a race before Election Day, he said: “If we were to spend $2 million this week on an acrimonious campaign, we would only guarantee a bloody and broken Democratic nominee, whoever won. And the ultimate success for Governor Pataki in November would be assured.”

Mr. Cuomo’s decision was brokered after days of phone calls between the Cuomo camp and such influential McCall supporters as Mr. Rangel and veteran Democratic operatives Bill Lynch and Harold Ickes. It both stunned and pleased many New York Democratic power-brokers, sparing Mr. McCall an expensive and vicious final week of campaigning and raising the possibility of a united Democratic front against the Republican incumbent, Mr. Pataki.

But the effect of unity was tempered when Mr. McCall didn’t attend the Hilton event, instead holding his own news conference at his Park Avenue South headquarters.

Mr. Cuomo’s decision came after several days of furious negotiations that involved allies of both camps, as well as Mr. Clinton, who had several phone conversations with Mr. Cuomo in the days leading up to his withdrawal. The talks were set in motion by City Council member Bill De Blasio, a Cuomo loyalist who is close to Mr. Ickes, Mr. Lynch, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The conversations didn’t proceed without friction. According to Democratic sources familiar with the situation, they sparked a disagreement in the McCall camp over how to handle Mr. Cuomo’s impending withdrawal. Mr. Cuomo proposed a prominent role for himself in the McCall campaign, an idea that was acceptable to the McCall supporters both as a way for Mr. Cuomo to save face and as a way to convey party unity.

“When you’re facing a hard-fought race, you welcome all the help you can get,” said one McCall ally. “Why not give him a little bit to save face and just get on with it?”

But according to the sources, some of Mr. McCall’s campaign staff members were reluctant to grant Mr. Cuomo any role-particularly one that would benefit him politically. And Mr. McCall, acting on their advice, stayed away from Mr. Cuomo’s event. Indeed, according to one well-placed Democrat, McCall campaign senior advisor Eric Eve called Mr. Clinton’s office in an effort to convince him not to attend the event.

“They were never into putting this announcement together,” said one prominent Democratic operative unaffiliated with either campaign, referring to Mr. McCall’s campaign staffers. “They just wanted to crush Andrew Cuomo.”

(Mr. Clinton’s spokesman, Jim Kennedy, denied that Mr. Eve made that request.)

It clearly was a difficult moment for Mr. Cuomo. He had spent years carefully preparing a challenge to the man who defeated his father in 1994, only to be outdone by Mr. McCall’s steady but low-key efforts. Now he was conceding before an array of leading Democratic lights, many of whom had followed his career since he was in his teens.

Standing onstage, Mr. Cuomo’s eyes welled up as he accepted lavish praise from Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rangel. He practically broke down again when he introduced his family before a conference room full of press and cheering supporters. He urged his supporters to vote for Mr. McCall. He hugged Mr. Clinton and even threw his arm around Mr. Rangel, who barely winced.

At one point, Mr. Clinton addressed Mr. Cuomo in the tone of an elderly uncle offering wait-till-next-year solace to a disappointed child. “I’ll make you a prediction: I’m the only person on this stage whose political career is over,” he said to loud applause.

McCall Upbeat

The McCall press conference held in response to Mr. Cuomo’s was, unsurprisingly, much more upbeat, with Mr. McCall appearing looser and more confident than he often does at campaign events. Mr. McCall said that he took his opponent’s explanation for dropping out at face value, adding that he had called Mr. Cuomo to discuss a possible role in the coming general election. But he refused to answer any questions about what, if any, role he envisioned Mr. Cuomo playing in his campaign.

“We’re all good Democrats, and I always assumed that when this came to an end, we’d be together,” Mr. McCall said matter-of-factly. “Now we’re all together.”

For all of Mr. Cuomo’s displays of emotion, there’s a cold political calculus behind his decision. Rather than suffer a loss at the hands of Mr. McCall, he is likely to earn some goodwill from both the Democratic Party establishment and, in particular, from African-American voters, making him a more viable political candidate in the future. It also conveniently spares him the ignominy of a likely loss to Mr. Pataki, who is leading both candidates in the polls and has a huge monetary advantage.

Mr. Cuomo first broached the idea of dropping out of the race last weekend, through Mr. De Blasio, who reached out to Mr. McCall’s top supporters-Mr. Ickes, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Rangel-to tell them that Mr. Cuomo was close to dropping out. He and the McCall advisers discussed various roles for Mr. Cuomo, including an honorary chairmanship on the McCall campaign and prominent speaking engagements. The McCall advisers also asked that Mr. Cuomo put his formidable fund-raising network at their disposal.

The McCall advisers, who were proceeding with limited input from the Comptroller’s campaign staff, wanted the two candidates to appear at an event with Mr. Clinton. But when campaign staff got wind of the idea, they tried to kill it, sources said. That’s when they called the former President’s office to try to discourage him from coming. The McCall staffers felt they were heading for certain victory over Mr. Cuomo, sources said, and didn’t want to bail Mr. Cuomo out with a unity photo op with Mr. Clinton.

Throughout the negotiations, both sides leaked furiously to gain advantage. Some reports said that Mr. Cuomo had demanded concessions in exchange for dropping out, including a demand that Mr. McCall back him in 2006, should Mr. McCall lose to Mr. Pataki. But that version was fiercely disputed by the Cuomo camp, which accused the McCall campaign of leaking a version designed to humiliate Mr. Cuomo.

McCall campaign manager Allen Cappelli wouldn’t comment on the details of the talks, and said that he wasn’t aware of any specific disagreements between the campaign and the McCall advisors who dealt with Mr. Cuomo.

Mr. McCall’s backers say that all of this is irrelevant, and that Mr. Cuomo’s withdrawal will help the Democrats’ chances in November. “The key to the Pataki strategy was for Cuomo and Carl to kill each other,” said Bill Lynch, a top adviser to Mr. McCall. “Now that we’re unified against Pataki, watch out.”

Mr. Cuomo’s résumé and familial connections led him to launch his campaign a year ago with great swagger and fanfare. His energy, pedigree and reputation as a ferocious competitor made him the presumptive favorite over his more modest rival. But as the months dragged on, it became clear that in a post–Sept. 11 environment which seemed to call for leaders to display decorum and emotional sensitivity, voters were repelled by a combative candidate like Mr. Cuomo. For many voters, Mr. Cuomo’s declaration several months ago that Mr. Pataki had merely “held [Rudolph Giuliani’s] coat” in the days after Sept. 11 reinforced the candidate’s aggressive image.

At the same time, his fearsome reputation as his father’s longtime political enforcer didn’t help among party regulars. One after another, they joined the McCall camp, until the Comptroller had racked up the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment. As Mr. Cuomo slipped in the polls, he found himself in a political bind: He was unable to cut into his rival’s support without reverting to form and looking like Mr. Hyde.

Regardless of its effects on Mr. Cuomo, Democrats are hopeful that the premature end to the primary contest will dampen the seemingly inexorable good fortune of Mr. Pataki, who remains a prohibitive favorite to win the general election. In addition to leaving Mr. McCall in better shape to run a more competitive general-election campaign against him, Mr. Cuomo’s withdrawal will have the effect of focusing attention on two lesser-watched primaries whose outcomes could have a dramatic effect on the general election: those of the Conservative Party and the Independence Party, in which Mr. Pataki is facing off against Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano.

Golisano Factor

If Mr. Golisano manages to get on either of those ballots for the November election, he could erode Mr. Pataki’s support on the right. The Comptroller, who would be the first black Governor, is expected to rally a huge minority turnout; with his left flank secure, and Democrats united across the board, he can make a convincing bid for centrist Democrats.

The contests between Mr. Golisano and Mr. Pataki have already been far nastier than anything that has played out between Mr. McCall and Mr. Cuomo, with the Pataki campaign calling Mr. Golisano both an unethical businessman and a liar, and the Golisano campaign accusing Mr. Pataki of everything from voter fraud to being a leftist traitor to his country. The fact that the Pataki campaign has been lured into combat against a long-shot independent candidate who never won more than 8 percent of the vote is a testament to their concern. He has proven himself willing to spend tens of millions of dollars in the race-he has already spent $23 million out of a promised $75 million-on what is essentially a kamikaze campaign.

Mr. Golisano’s primary goal seems to be inflict as much harm on the Governor’s reputation as possible. One recent mailing from the Golisano camp to Conservative Party voters features a faceless soldier describing Mr. Pataki as a sellout to downstate liberal and radical interest groups.

“Al Sharpton and George Pataki fought against giving me the best military training I could get before shipping off to fight the war on terrorism,” the soldier says in the mailing. Above pictures of Mr. Pataki, Mr. Sharpton and Osama bin Laden, the mailing adds: “Pataki is even willing to lock arms with left wing radicals” to oppose the use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for military training. “Vote ‘NO’ on Pataki and Sharpton.”

Democrats are hoping that Mr. Cuomo’s withdrawal, coupled with the vicious primary battles between Mr. Pataki and Mr. Golisano, will help them prevail in November.

“Pataki is now in a much weaker position than anyone expected,” said Democratic political analyst Richard Schrader. “United Democrats will now be able to attack him in the center, while Golisano is attacking them from the right. If Golisano survives the primaries, Pataki will be tied up in a two-front war.