How a Rout Is Born

The next gubernatorial election is still just over a year away, but it’s probably not too early to say this much: The contest will be between Andrew Cuomo and, most likely, Rick Lazio – and it won’t be much of a fight.

David Paterson’s long, slow march to the political sidelines advanced further this week with an ominous, if anonymously sourced, story in the Daily News that suggested the governor would reassess his plans to seek re-election if his poll numbers haven’t improved by January.

The story has the ring of truth, mostly because it’s been obvious for months now that this is the exact fate Paterson is headed for. Given the state of the economy and voters’ high anxiety and frustration levels, and Paterson’s poor communication skills and status as an unelected incumbent, there was really no hope for the governor after his poll numbers collapsed last winter. He’s tried everything he can think of to restore his standing, but nothing has worked. Voters have given up on Paterson and tuned him out.

And his predicament has only been worsened by the just-offstage presence of Cuomo and his 70 percent approval rating. For more than six months now, polls have shown the attorney general crushing Paterson in a potential Democratic primary – 61 to 19 percent in the latest poll, a margin that just won’t budge.

To have a chance of waging a competitive primary campaign against Cuomo – or, more to the point, to be able to bluff Cuomo out of a primary altogether – Paterson would need to cut about 30 points off that gap. At that point, he’d have enough leverage to assemble and hold together a meaningful coalition, one that would give Cuomo, who hardly wants to stir memories of his divisive, losing 2002 primary fight against Carl McCall, second thoughts about running.

But that’s just not happening, and there’s no reason to even suspect that Paterson can eat into Cuomo’s lead in the next two months. The verdict has been rendered. So Paterson will have to reassess his situation in January, because that’s when important Democrats will begin to cast their lots for ’10 – and, even if they like the governor, they’ll have no incentive to stand with him (and real reason to fear doing so, since they’d risk alienating a potential future governor in Cuomo).

Whether Paterson and his team knew it or not, he has long been facing an early 2010 expiration date. Now, at least some in his world are starting to admit it. And once the governor himself does, Cuomo will be clear to claim the Democratic nomination in uncontested fashion.

And, as it was for Eliot Spitzer in 2006, that achievement should be tantamount to a November victory for Cuomo.

Yeah, yeah, Rudy Giuliani is supposedly considering jumping in the race himself. And, of course, he’d make it a contest if he were to do so (even if Cuomo would still be favored to win). But Rudy’s interest in the governorship, it grows clearer by the day, has always been tied to Paterson’s prospects of securing the Democratic nod. In a head-to-head with the wounded, unelected Paterson, Rudy (correctly) figured, he’d have a chance – a very, very good chance.

But it’s now obvious that he won’t get to face Paterson if he runs. Instead, he’d have to take on the most popular politician in the state, and one whose party already enjoys a significant registration advantage. Rudy, his image already diminished by his inability to produce more than one delegate with $50 million in his presidential bid, isn’t about to risk what remains of his reputation on a race like that.

And when it comes to stature and electability, the drop-off from Rudy to the state G.O.P.’s bench is sharp and steep.

Right now, two non-Rudy Republicans are eyeing their party’s nod. Lazio, the one-time Long Island congressman most famous for trying (and failing) to intimidate Hillary Clinton on-stage in 2000, is squarely in the race. Chris Collins, the Erie County executive, is also interested.

Lazio, though, now seems to be in the driver’s seat. First, he’s far better-known than Collins, thanks to his Senate bid. Second, he hasn’t (yet) likened Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to Hitler and referred to him as an “antichrist”- something that Collins did this week (and, apparently, at least one other time).

Granted, Silver is a deeply unpopular figure among the G.O.P. base. But Collins is trying to convince Republican activists and county chairs that he’s equipped to lead their ticket in a statewide election. So far, he’s flunking. Maybe he can turn it around, but Lazio was already the more likely nominee – Collins’ amateur-hour performance this week (his introduction to many Republicans) sets him back immeasurably.

Against Cuomo, the Republican nomination won’t be worth much. As a general rule, New Yorkers want to elect Democrats. Give them an open seat election with a mega-popular, well-funded non-incumbent Democrat running against a nondescript Republican with an average (at best) treasury and, well, they’re going to vote Democratic – overwhelmingly.

The last Quinnipiac poll put Cuomo ahead of Lazio by 39 points, 61 to 22 percent – similar to the ridiculous margins Spitzer was running up against John Faso at this time four years ago. Faso and the G.O.P. did all they could to warn voters off Spitzer, but no one was listening and the race never became remotely competitive.

A Cuomo-Lazio race might be slightly closer, if only because the national climate won’t be as overwhelmingly Democratic in ’10 as it was in 2006. But that’s the difference between a 40-point race and a 30-point one – not the difference between a Cuomo landslide and a nail-biter.

  How a Rout Is Born