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CUOMO IS STRONGEST FOE FOR BUSH IN '92 ELECTION BUT HE MUST DEAL WITH REAGAN LEGACIES

Gov. Cuomo clearly established himself again as the potential Democratic presidential candidate with the strongest boxoffice appeal and the liveliest and most nimble mind of the 1992 crop in his speech last week at the National Press Club.

But his wide-ranging remarks also illustrated the struggles he and other party leaders face in trying to assemble a credible message of broad themes while memories of Ronald Reagan's sugar plums still dance in the heads of voters.

The traditional Democratic appeal to the nation's social conscience, the speech showed, has no better advocate than Mario Cuomo. But this theme will have to be adjusted somehow to deal with the legacies of the Reagan era -- anathema to taxes, even when they're justified, and anti-communism.

One suspects that Reagan's virulent anti-communism had a kind of cheap appeal to the gut, old-time Republican fear of foreigners and things foreign. If not, why was it so easy for Bush to arouse the country against the Arab tyrant of the month only weeks after Berlin Wall was dismantled.

While Bush's entire Persian Gulf strategy can be attacked on moral, economic and political grounds, it still carries great clout as a political hoo-doo. Now that the civilian hostages have been released, they have been replaced by our military personnel in Saudi Arabia -- who are making political hostages of the Democrats.

It's the Democrats' own internationalist baggage as well as their well-placed fear of a president who wrapped himself in the American flag last time that makes them loath to undercut our boys and girls in the desert by calling Desert Shield an "adventure" as columnist Pat Buchanan correctly does.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, Me., won't step up to the plate, even with Bush having lost half the popular support he had six months ago. Nor will House Speaker Tom Foley, Wash. Credit Cuomo for flatly stating Congress must vote before the president launches an offensive campaign, something that Foley and Mitchell are wobbly about lately.

Cuomo also ventured the idea that our government might have to reach a settlement with Iraq under some circumstances. Saying this required some independence, considering the fact that he has the largest Jewish constituency in the hemisphere. But Gov. Cuomo was constrained to praise the way the White House has handled Desert Shield so far, which has to be read as an endorsement of putting nearly a half-million personnel in the field.

There is no scenario for Desert Shield that won't eat up all the funds that ought to be spent on social programs. Cuomo a week ago spoke here with justifiable outrage against cuts that the Reagan administration made in programs for the homeless, for the underfed, the sick and the elderly, the ignorant, for the jobless -- for the victims of our selfishness of the 1980s.

Cuomo is surely the most electable spokesman for these people who have no constituency. Yet even in Desert Shield's aftermath, even in the most favorable situation, hundreds of thousands of American troops are going to be garrisoned in the Middle East. And this will cost untold billions that would otherwise be spent on the new vision for America that the governor outlined.

The Democrats, including the governor, have yet to face this political arithmetic: Either bring our kids home or continue the spiral of domestic hopelessness.

Cuomo felt compelled to picture himself as a budget cutter, and an administrator willing to face the bitter work of having to eliminate some positions in state programs in which he strongly believes -- mental health, correction and education. The aftermath of the recent election may have mandated that as a defensive move. But it would be simplistic to picture Cuomo as a man suddenly hooked on Reagan anti-tax fever, or as a governmental outsider, as the New York Times did.

A case has to be made that our war is on the streets of New York City, and on the bullet-sprayed sidewalks of the District of Columbia's ghetto, in Watts, in Chicago, and in Buffalo. More American people are being killed in this war every day that will die in an invasion of Iraq.

Surely a case can be made that the war in America's streets and mounting despair in small-town and rural America is more our war than the war Bush wants to wage, and that it poses a greater threat to our national security than the invasion of Kuwait, or even Saudi Arabia. The hope here is that the advocate for this case will be Mario Cuomo.

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