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As Democrats convene here, fate of Paterson causes plenty of worry With 2010 stakes high, Cuomo gets a close look

He has spent the last week trying to convince voters, pundits and even a skeptical President Obama that he can win the election for governor in 2010.

Today in Buffalo, Gov. David A. Paterson gets to make this increasingly difficult plea at a key moment to what could be his most important audience: state Democratic Party leaders.

And right on his heels will be Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, the man many -- possibly including the president -- think should run instead of Paterson next year.

The tea-leaf reading gets under way early with a breakfast hosted by Cuomo, followed by a luncheon Paterson is throwing for the Democratic elite, who are holding their annual fall meeting.

Today's session will be the first gathering with both Paterson and Cuomo in attendance since they appeared with Obama last week in Troy at an event where the governor was snubbed in several notable ways. The meeting will unmistakably be used by Democrats as a point of comparison between the governor and attorney general, who has been tiptoeing his way politically as he mulls a run for Paterson's job.

"The best thing for either man is to not pay attention to each other. Should either of the two make this into a confrontation, confrontation means loss. The two should say nice things and keep moving," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant from Manhattan.

Nonetheless, this is a duel, and as the two Democrats work the crowd in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo and the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, party leaders will be listening to Paterson, as he has been doing for a week, lay out the reasoning why he is not dead in the political water. For many, though, who have privately been bashing the governor and praising Cuomo in the last week, the decision is already made.

"It's big. It's real big. He's got to tell them that this is the deal: I'm running. I'm going to make the hard decisions, and let's get on with it," Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said of Paterson's afternoon speech.

But, he added, "There are going to be rows and rows of skeptical people. The best he can do is not to make it worse."

Reading body language will be an art form, as will eavesdropping on conversations, watching who is talking to which faction member and playing games such as: Did Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver clap more for Paterson or Cuomo?

A day before the Democratic meeting, Republican Party leaders were in Albany, buoyed by the internal troubles facing Paterson with the potential to roil the Democratic Party. They talked of Democrats pushing big spending and big tax increases during a recession, and a White House -- evident by the outreach by Obama's operatives to get Paterson not to run in 2010 -- clearly worried about New York Democrats' ability to hold on to key posts in congressional and state elections.

"We are energized," said Edward F. Cox, a son-in-law of the late President Richard M. Nixon who was elected chairman of the state Republican Party on Tuesday at a hotel outside Albany.

"My fellow New Yorkers, we will win in 2010; I assure you that," Cox told the GOP insiders yearning for some red meat solutions now that the Democrats control every statewide federal and state post and both houses of the State Legislature.

Prominent among the Republicans from Western New York in attendance was Erie County Executive Chris Collins, who is not-so-quietly promoting a run for governor.

Collins predicted a GOP "tsunami" next year. "The voters are angry. The voters are focused, and that is good for us," Collins told the Republicans as he attacked everything from high taxation to union influence in the state.

The White House, concerned about traditional congressional losses in the midterm elections next year, does not want to have to worry about some of its bluest states, including New York.

But it is concerned, especially about Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand with her low poll numbers, as well as about several Democratic seats in the House. It also wants the Senate to hold on to its thin majority in the State Senate, as well as the governor's mansion, in large part because the following year sees the redistricting process to redraw boundaries for congressional and State Legislature districts. That process is controlled by the Legislature and the governor.

Cuomo, as he has for most of the year, sought Tuesday to stay above the turbulence. His allies say that while he wants to be governor, his strategy is to get the job through action, not words -- or at least not his words. To that end, at a Hilbert College event to announce arrests in a debt-collection case, Cuomo again sidestepped questions about his ambitions.

"We have elections next year," he said. "To the best of my ability, I'm going to keep that until next year. I'm paid by the people of the State of New York every day to represent them, not to engage in politics."

Democrats have been gingerly walking the Paterson/Cuomo tightrope for months, but it has intensified since the White House's involvement last week. One Buffalo Democrat, Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, last week said he would not back Paterson for governor next year, though he criticized the White House strategy of trying to embarrass the governor out of the race.

One of the Democrats whom Republican leaders on Tuesday said they would be targeting next year suggested that it is too soon to worry about the Democratic ticket. "I think the governor will deal with his problems," said Sen. William T. Stachowski of Lake View. "I'll worry about the ticket next year."

Democrats have been wiggling for a week in their public comments about the governor. That was again the case Tuesday in advance of today's meeting. Asked whether the Buffalo gathering could help turn around the governor's fortunes, Sen. Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo, said, "I'm not certain. But as long as he's running, I'm supporting him."

Thompson said the Buffalo meeting is "very important" for Paterson to "stake out his case and reaffirm that he's in it." As for Cuomo, he said, the meeting will allow him to show his success in his job as attorney general.

"The best way to get a new job is to do your current job well," Thompson said. "He's obviously in a holding pattern right now, but the governor is the governor, and, at least right now, I'm behind him."

Political observers believe that today's Buffalo meeting will further cement the governor's political obituary in the minds of some of his detractors within the party and those still sitting on the fence. "I don't know how he recovers," said Jeffrey M. Stonecash, a political scientist at Syracuse University.

The embattled governor received a warm welcome Tuesday along Franklin Street, where more than a dozen red, white and blue "Governor Paterson 2010" placards were displayed from Huron to Tupper streets.

Several of the placards were displayed inside the windows at D'Arcy McGee's, as well as on metal fencing outside the restaurant and in front of the Buffalo Chophouse, where a Democratic reception was held.

Sheinkopf said he expects top Democrats to be disciplined while they're in Buffalo. "The argument's already been made" about Paterson's prospects, he said. "It's been made at the highest levels of government. Nothing needs to be said. And anybody who touches this gets into trouble."

News Staff Reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report.