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PIERRE RINFRET, the Republican candidate for governor, met with The News Editorial Board June 14.

Mario Cuomo, the governor since 1983 and Democratic candidate for re-election, met with the Editorial Board June 18.

The contrast between the two is dramatic, compelling. Engaging in dialogue with both within a few days provided an excellent opportunity for pragmatic appraisal.

The June 14 meeting was the board's first with Rinfret, a newcomer to politics who was selected to represent his party after more than a dozen other prospective candidates declined to make the race.

All of the Editorial Board members have met with Cuomo numerous times. I have had countless sessions with him, dating back to 1975, when he first entered the statewide picture as New York's secretary of state in the administration of Gov. Hugh Carey.

The News Editorial Board meets with state, national and international figures regularly. The sessions with Cuomo always are the most productive, the most challenging, the most intriguing. It is an experience we all enjoy, although we most certainly do not agree with all of his positions.

Friend and foe agree the man is a great communicator, a fine debater. But above all, his knowledge of New York State's problems and potential is enormous. From our perspective, a key positive factor is the governor's abiding interest in Western New York, an interest we first saw manifested when he was secretary of state. We've known too many top state officials and U.S. senators representing New York State who seemingly only remembered the existence of our part of the state during election campaigns.

While we agree that initial impressions can be misleading, we are confident in some of the conclusions we reached after our first meeting with Rinfret. He is an intelligent, affable individual, who at this time can only speak in generalities about New York State and where he might take the state if elected. By his own admission, he still has a great deal to learn.

Greatly troublesome is his apparent lack of awareness of that vast area of the state outside New York City, and most particularly Manhattan. Rinfret talks with pride of being raised in Manhattan and still residing in Manhattan. He, like too many New Yorkers, gives the impression that upstate New York is anything and everything outside New York City.

The candidate focused all his attention on taxes and the compelling need to reduce them. But he provided no answers on how to finance the state's numerous social programs, aid to localities and school districts, and the like.

Not once did he refer to the environment or the many other pressing issues of the day. Rather, he constantly came back to taxes and spending and his dream of privatizing transportation, authorities, bridges and other facilities. And in response to inquiries of how this would work, we heard no specifics that were meaningful.

We wondered, too, how a man so lacking in any political experience at any level could be expected to work with the two houses of the Legislature and with the usually contentious leaders of the Senate and Assembly who always challenge any governor, Republican or Democrat. Politics is the art of compromise, an art not readily adopted by a neophyte in the political environment.

The governor addressed himself to dozens of state issues and, as always, was up to speed on all. Unlike some of his predecessors, he rarely has to turn to his aides for information. All of this rebuts Rinfret's charge that Cuomo does not work at his job. Whether you agree with the man or not, his dedication to his duties is not open to challenge.

The highlight of a meeting with the governor generally comes when you can move him from talk of pragmatic politics and governance and in a direction that brings forth his deeply felt philosophical views.

Whether you approve or disapprove of his feelings on abortion or the death penalty, for example, you cannot arbitrarily dismiss his point of view because his thinking is anything but superficial or lacking in intellectual content.

Rinfret will have a major problem in gaining voter recognition and undoubtedly will challenge the governor to a series of debates. That's always a plus for the underdog and particularly one unknown to the electorate.

But unless Rinfret absorbs a tremendous amount of knowledge of New York State in a relatively short time, a debate with Cuomo is likely to be a sad, humbling and unsettling experience for the novice politician.

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