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Obama cool to Paterson on visit Lauds Cuomo, adding to pressure on governor

If the White House was sending a signal Monday in its attempt to distance President Obama from Gov. David A. Paterson, the job was well done.

While Obama traveled to an Albany-area community college to tout his ideas for a post-recession nation, all political eyes were on the president and the signs he had given over the weekend of losing faith in Paterson's ability to get elected next year.

And if Obama sought to portray Paterson as being discarded Monday, State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo clearly was the replacement candidate.

Consider the not-so-subtle signals that grow in importance when coming from a president. Shortly before 11 a.m., Paterson met Obama at the Albany airport. After a brief half-embrace and a few words that reporters could not hear over the whine of the jet engines, Obama got into his limousine, leaving a brushed-off Paterson to ride in his sport utility vehicle nine cars back in the motorcade going to Hudson Valley Community College.

The two men could have had an opportunity to chat later since both were heading to New York City after the speech. But Paterson was not invited to ride with Obama in the limo to the airport or on Air Force One for the flight.

At the college, a sullen-looking governor entered an event room to polite applause. A handful of Democrats exchanged niceties with the governor. In a backstage room, meanwhile, Obama was the featured guest at a quick and exclusive reception that included Cuomo and State Sen. John L. Sampson, the Brooklyn Democratic leader quietly helping to orchestrate the governor's exit.

If words about the obvious topic were not directly spoken, body language played a heavy role. Cuomo entered the room and worked the gathering like a post-game receiving line, handing out hugs and hearty handshakes as Paterson stood waiting his turn to greet Cuomo. The state politicians were left to wait in the event room for 25 minutes for Obama to show. Arriving late was Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who huddled next to Cuomo as the two whispered throughout the Obama speech.

The president first introduced Paterson to the small, hand-picked crowd -- with barely a glance to where the governor was sitting just 20 feet away -- as a "wonderful man, the governor of the great State of New York."

That done, Obama moved on to proclaim that Cuomo "is in the house." Obama, beaming widely toward Cuomo who sat just three seats away from Paterson, introduced the attorney general as "your shy and retiring attorney general."

"Andrew's doing great work enforcing the laws that need to be enforced," Obama gushed. Cuomo, also beaming, rose and soaked in the applause as Paterson sat stone-faced.

"It was uncomfortable," said a Democratic strategist who is not a Paterson fan.

So went the day for Paterson, who many Democrats already were describing in lame-duck terms now that the nation's top Democrat has indicated he will not support him if he seeks election next year.

Some Democrats privately confessed to feeling bad for the governor during Monday's event. But they noted that a serious move is under way to help Paterson leave office gracefully.

Some Paterson loyalists say they believe the White House move against Paterson may be the work of Patrick Gaspard, Obama's senior political adviser, who worked for a union that has battled Paterson over the past year -- and not directly of the president. But Obama had ample opportunity Monday to undo the effort against Paterson and did not.

Some Democrats say the White House move makes Paterson's withdrawal as a candidate inevitable, and closed-door talks were held Monday evening in Manhattan and Albany to discuss ways to make it happen. Looking at Paterson's dismal poll ratings, they also said Obama did the state party a favor by jump-starting an effort to move Paterson aside in favor of a stronger candidate.

Potential problems, how-ever, include making Paterson a lame duck for 15 months. But leaving office early could spark an all-out battle over a successor since Paterson's appointment of a lieutenant governor is being challenged in court.

"To get [Paterson] to declare himself a lame duck now turns a chaotic situation into an incredible mess," said James Campbell, a University at Buffalo political scientist. "I don't know whether the White House realized this or they just didn't care."

Democratic sources said Paterson advisers are split over whether the governor should ignore the president's pleadings. Sunday, Paterson publicly said he is running.

Given the inclination not to anger the White House, few Democrats were rushing to Paterson's side. June O'Neill, outgoing chairwoman of the State Democratic Party, said the governor has been "dealt a lousy hand" by having to deal with fiscal problems not of his making.

Asked after the Obama event if Paterson should run, she said: "I think the governor will do what the governor thinks is appropriate. He says he's running. We take him at his word, and we support the governor."

"As the governor said, he is running for re-election. I support that," said Sampson, the state senator from Brooklyn. Last week -- five days after Gaspard, the Obama aide, had broached the idea with Paterson -- Sampson and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, a Queens Democrat, had dinner with the governor and urged him not to run.

Campbell and others said Obama's entreaties carry their own risks: The president could be seen as getting overly involved in state political matters a time when other major matters are on his plate.

Some Republicans were quick to jump onto the internal Democratic Party battle. Former Gov. George E. Pataki told reporters Obama was "wrong" to insert himself into state politics. Pataki is considering a challenge to Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand.

Gillibrand had no comment on the matter, nor did the normally talkative Sen. Charles E. Schumer. Both stayed far away from Troy on Monday.

The White House is concerned about the state on a host of fronts. It fears a weak Paterson will hurt Democrats' ability to hold onto Gillibrand's seat as well as a few congressional districts. Democrats also want to control the redistricting process that will follow next year's elections.

If, as a spillover from a Paterson defeat, Democrats lose their newly established control of the State Senate, their clout would be diminished in redrawing boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts, the White House fears.

The National Democratic Party, moreover, does not want to have to pour resources into New York, one of its base states, in a year when the party is expected to focus on retaining congressional seats in other more marginal states.

Some also have speculated that Obama is concerned a weakened Paterson will entice former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to run for governor, which could put him in position to challenge the president in 2012.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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