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There was a time -- not so long ago -- when a party called the Democrats ruled the State of New York.

They had a governor named Mario Cuomo. And for 12 years they presided over the way things worked in that great expanse from Ripley to Montauk.

But after a while, the words Democrats and Cuomo became synonymous. Mario Cuomo was the Democratic Party in New York. And when Cuomo left Albany after his 1994 defeat, so did any semblance of identity or power for the state Democratic Party.

On Monday in Westchester County, New York's Dems will gather at the Rye Town Hilton to take the first steps toward fixing that. It won't be easy. Because even though the state party has worked hard to launch a post-Cuomo era, there is no doubt it still faces huge obstacles.

And the main obstacle is the man who ushered Cuomo off to private law practice -- Gov. Pataki.

Pataki gears up for his 1998 re-election run trying to shed the "un-Cuomo" label that swept him into office in the first place. While most observers believe New Yorkers voted against Cuomo more than voted for Pataki in 1994, many also believe that Pataki has now crafted enough of his own image to run successfully.

The polls back that up. He is so far ahead that any Democrats of real standing -- the A Team -- have bypassed a shot at the incumbent.

So Monday's gathering in Rye will feature reserves from the bench -- those Dems hoping to jump in the race, take advantage of the party's 1 million registration edge, and pray for lightning to hit. It will be a chance for four or five unknowns interested in running for governor to present their case to the party hierarchy and establish themselves as the early front runners.

Those men include New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, former Transportation Commissioner Jim Larocca, Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, and former Carey administration official Richard Kahan. In addition, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver -- the one Democrat with statewide stature -- is beginning to make some noises.

But it is also expected the party will present a new look. The flavor of those running for governor will be very "un-Cuomo" indeed, devoid of the classic liberal philosophy that guided the party during the former governor's era.

What we will hear are terms like "moderate Democrat" and "pro-business policies," and talk of the importance of upstate's more conservative voters.

Larocca, for example, has worked hard to cultivate that moderate image. He emphasizes his tenure as head of the Long Island Association (a regional business group). Vallone stresses his roots in working-class Queens, while Hynes will come across as the tough, anti-crime prosecutor.

The theory will be that the true-blue liberalism of the Cuomo era cannot work against an extremely popular Pataki. But someone who sounds a lot like Pataki with some traditional Democratic slants on social issues (abortion, welfare) may just bring New York home to a party they seem to have forgotten.

It's a long shot for them. And it all begins Monday.

Count Sen. Anthony Nanula among those attending the Democratic parley. Though his efforts to appear on the '98 statewide ticket appear to be thwarted, he continues to present himself as a statewide figure. That could mean a shot at 1998, should something unforeseen happen, a shot at the comptroller's post should Carl McCall not finish his term or an eventual shot at comptroller when McCall does decide to retire.

County Legislator Greg Olma has emerged from his bruising primary battle with a new goal in sight -- a potential challenge to Chuck Swanick next year for the chairmanship of the Erie County Legislature.

"What I offer is a more reasoned and balanced approach," Olma said. "Compared to the current chairman, there would be a more relaxed environment."

Olma believes there could be enough support among the members of the 1998 Legislature to pull it off.

Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo is still having a hard time containing his "enthusiasm" about the primary choice of Sharon Caetano over Tony Masiello for mayor.

Lorigo said after the primary he would not support the Old First Ward homemaker but has since couched that remark in some more diplomatic terms.

"I will not be working for someone who does not have our endorsement," Lorigo said, which roughly translated means Mrs. Caetano can forget her request for $10,000 in party funds for the general election campaign.

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