Cuomo Ready to Turn Up the Heat on Paterson

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By this point, things were supposed to have fallen into place for Andrew Cuomo. A failed governor Paterson should have capitulated, allowing political royalty to fulfill its destiny. The transition would be executed cleanly, with a minimum of brutality, fingerprints, and outrage. Memories of Cuomo's ugly campaign against Carl McCall in 2002 would be buried for good.

Unfortunately for the attorney general, recent events have forced a change in plans. Governor David Paterson hasn't accepted the inevitability of surrender. He's defied President Obama, resisted the undertow of Democratic discontent, and doubled down with a barrage of campaign ads. A polite nudge clearly won't cut it.

Now sources say Cuomo is preparing a more aggressive approach. The strategy is a two-pronged assault, starting in mid-January when Cuomo and Paterson will disclose how much money they've raised. Cuomo has been raising money at a furious pace, and his war chest (around $16 million) is expected to be about four times larger than the governor's. The Cuomo camp hopes a weak showing by Paterson will intensify fears that he'll drag down Democrats in the State Senate and Congress — especially amid signs of Republican upsurge in November.

Step two is to exploit that momentum by rolling out endorsements of Cuomo by prominent black figures. The point man seems to be Malcolm Smith, a black Senate leader from Cuomo's native Queens. The Cuomo camp is negotiating with Smith over the possibility of a public endorsement later this month, according to sources. And they're trying to enlist him to recruit the backing of other black lawmakers in Albany and Congress, as well as the Reverend Al Sharpton. Smith has privately assured Paterson of his loyalty, say Paterson aides. But Paterson's rhetorical attacks against the legislature have left Senate Democrats seething. And Smith, who lost clout after this summer's coup, has a lot to gain by aligning himself early with the attorney general.

The question is, when will Cuomo pull the trigger? Democrats thought he'd lay low until the spring, presumably after lawmakers and the governor agree on a budget and before the Democratic state convention in May. Cuomo would have more time to burnish his record and avoid the media scrutiny that attends an announced candidate. Now Democrats say the Cuomo team is debating whether to push up his entrance as early as this month, so as not to give Paterson the opportunity for further recovery. "The risk to Cuomo in waiting too long is that momentum that Paterson has built over the last couple of months becomes irreversible," says a Democratic lawmaker.

Paterson and his aides, meanwhile, say they can still deter Cuomo. Next week, the governor will deliver his State of the State speech, a high-profile chance to assert his record and agenda. (His rambling, turgid performance a year ago was a low point.) The unveiling of the executive budget later this month offers Paterson an opportunity to distinguish himself from a legislature battered for its handling of the budget crisis. Obama's backing of Cuomo last year hasn't defused racial tensions, as the governor's father, Basil Paterson, reminded in a recent television interview. (It's a "problem everybody whispers about," he told NY1.)

And Paterson's aides say Mayor Bloomberg's narrow victory against Bill Thompson doesn't bode well for Cuomo. As with Bloomberg, they say Cuomo's support among black voters is thinner than the polls suggest. They plan to trace the same narrative of an underdog minority up against a richer, white candidate. Says Bill Lynch, a Paterson adviser: "The money game can bite you in the ass. Look what happened to Bloomberg."