Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo's official entry into the contest for governor produced some of the sharpest exchanges of the young campaign Wednesday after he scored Gov. George E. Pataki's handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- previously considered political sacred turf.
On a campaign bus headed from Syracuse to Buffalo, the former Housing secretary told reporters that the governor ceded his leadership to former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and could have assumed more of that role.
"Rudy Giuliani was the hero of 9-11," Cuomo told the Associated Press and other reporters. "There was a leader in 9-11. It was Rudy Giuliani."
Cuomo called the Sept. 11 situation "telling." He added that Pataki "stood behind the leader. He held the leader's coat. He was a great assistant to the leader. But he was not a leader."
"Cream rises to the top and Rudy Giuliani rose to the top," said Cuomo, who is challenging Comptroller H. Carl McCall for the right to challenge Republican Pataki in November.
The son of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo had been concentrating on his plans for job creation during a swing through economically struggling cities like Utica, Syracuse and Buffalo. And though he outlined those plans before a small but enthusiastic crowd in Ellicott Square Wednesday evening, his remarks about Pataki's role in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center drew critical responses from both Giuliani and Pataki.
"The reality is that the governor was a full and complete partner, and I held his coat as often as he held mine," Giuliani told the Associated Press. "We supported each other.
"I think if Andrew Cuomo makes this the issue of the campaign, George Pataki could get elected unanimously," the former mayor added. "It's not a correct issue. George Pataki did everything right on Sept. 11 and thereafter as the governor."
Later, Pataki seemed stunned over the remarks as he addressed reporters at an Albany event to mark the cutting of public assistance rolls by more than 1 million since he took office in 1995.
"He actually said that?" Pataki asked. "There are things I can say, but I don't think it's appropriate. I'm not going to comment on that. I'm just stunned by the comments. I just think it's very sad."
Cuomo was just as hard-hitting in his criticism of Pataki's handling of the upstate economy. He released a report referring to the "Pataki Depression," and proposed a program that he said would create 200,000 new jobs in five years.
"There is no leadership. There is no action," Cuomo said in Ellicott Square. "He has not worked on bringing the economy back, and it has to stop."
Cuomo hammered at the governor for presiding over a loss of jobs and population while tax totals have increased. He could do better, he said, with a program that rebates 80 percent of the amount of personal income tax in exchange for creating jobs.
Republicans, meanwhile, appeared quite organized in their counterattack. Top Republicans in Utica and Syracuse issued rebuttals to Cuomo's claims, and Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra followed suit in Buffalo.
"I'm disappointed that Andrew Cuomo has compromised his integrity for purely political purposes," Giambra said. "Simply put, if finger pointing is all Andrew Cuomo could offer as governor -- thanks, but no thanks."