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For Cuomo, presidential race begins on local turf

ALBANY – The 2016 presidential hopefuls have been busy of late.

On the Republican side, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has addressed GOP leaders with his theories of retaking the White House.

Floridians Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush are jockeying to help a Republican win the Virginia governor’s race. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has rallied with conservatives meeting in Orlando while U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has visited key early primary states.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has been giving policy speeches while doing nothing to dissuade backers from urging her to run.

Vice President Biden was in Iowa last week for some politicking at a steak fry fundraiser. And Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has been to New Hampshire and is a regular on national network news shows.

And New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo?

In recent weeks, he has traveled to the tip of Long Island to talk about fairness for flounder fishermen, stopped in the Finger Lakes to drive around a racetrack, visited downstate communities to push post-hurricane rebuilding efforts, canoed in the Adirondacks to promote tourism and tailgated at a Buffalo Bills game to tout the benefits of eating New York-made products.

Not quite the stuff one might associate with a 2016 presidential bid.

But Cuomo’s schedule this past summer has shown an increasingly dogged, first-things-first pursuit: his 2014 re-election.

While there is plenty of time for him to decide on a White House run, Cuomo knows it could be politically bumbling to try to openly push a 2016 presidential campaign at the same time he is asking New York State voters to re-elect him next year by a margin greater and broader than he captured in 2010.

Add in the will-she-or-won’t-she Hillary Factor, and Cuomo is left on the sidelines – for now.

But that has not stopped some supporters from trying to nudge him, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Cuomo has been presented with ideas to prepare for 2016, including a Draft Cuomo initiative by backers in New York and other states, a surrogate-created campaign Web page and social media outreach and a quiet public relations effort to tell Washington-based media and political insiders of his work in New York State.

But Cuomo has had a simple response: no.

Strategists and political watchers say Cuomo is playing his 2016 cards correctly at this point, but that he also risks falling behind others in the eventual rush to raise money and create a national campaign organization.

Waiting until after his November 2014 re-election could be smart, they say, or it could be too late, depending on how the field shapes up. Read: Clinton’s entry or not.

“Frankly, I’m not surprised if he’s thinking seriously and logically here for two reasons: Clinton and Biden,” said Robert Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University. “They are the heir apparent leaders in the Democratic Party … and while they are in the picture, I think it would be difficult for him to break into the pack to say nothing of breaking out of the pack.”

But there are some peeks into a possible future. He has, for instance, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from major national Democratic Party donors, including some of the top donors to President Obama. They include James Simon, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has given Cuomo $85,000 the past three years; Jon Stryker, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan who has donated $28,000 to Cuomo since 2010; and Ben Barnes, a lobbyist and real estate executive from Texas who is a former Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives who has given Cuomo $68,500 the past three years.

Cuomo, whose office wouldn’t comment for this article, has brushed aside talk of 2016, saying he is focused on running the state government and preparing for his re-election race, even though he has no opponent yet.

Upstate focus

In the meantime, Cuomo has a laser-like concentration on his 2014 run. Since polls earlier this year showed him losing support among upstate voters, Cuomo has practically lived upstate.

Cuomo has crisscrossed upstate all summer, a number of times with his pilots skirting around thunderstorms to get him to events. He has held no public events at the Capitol, preferring to get away from what he has described as a cynical Albany press corps.

Whether because of those trips or state-funded economic development ad campaigns, Cuomo’s poll numbers have started to rebound upstate – a region where his supporters want him to perform well in 2014 to show he can be a “big tent” Democrat.

In July, August and during the first three weeks of September, Cuomo has been to 23 upstate counties, including six of the 13 counties he lost in the 2010 election. In all, he has held public events in upstate counties on 35 days this summer. A year ago during the same period, he was seen upstate just nine times.

The number of news releases put out by his media operation is up 15 percent this summer over last. And in the month of August alone, his office announced $556 million in state funding for everything from flood relief efforts to new clean water initiatives to golf courses and development projects stretching from Buffalo to Albany. His travel schedule is also up dramatically this year to Western New York, a region in which he lost all eight counties in his 2010 race.

The governor, analysts say, needs to win re-election big next year to help himself in dealings with the State Legislature and to show national Democrats he could be a force in 2016.

In 2010, Cuomo beat Buffalo developer Carl Paladino with 62 percent of the vote. The all-time landslide victory for a statewide candidate in New York was Kirsten Gillibrand’s 72 percent win last year in her U.S. Senate re-election bid.

Another number that Cuomo is eyeing is from a 1986 race, Democrats say. That’s the year his father, Mario Cuomo, won his first gubernatorial re-election with 65 percent of the vote.

Some concerns

As they look to 2016, Cuomo supporters believe there are still some subtle maneuvering he could make now.

For one, surrogates known to be close to Cuomo could be given a green light to create a website, such as the one Clinton backers have created, to tout his record as governor.

These supporters said they worry Cuomo is relying too much on the news media to spread his name recognition. Such reliance was a tool the governor’s father used in 1988 and 1992 when the news media routinely floated Mario Cuomo’s name as eyeing a White House run. Mario stayed in the national game without missing a night’s sleep in the governor’s mansion in Albany. News stories back then frequently referred to Mario Cuomo as a “would-be presidential candidate” and routinely rushed his words into print and on the airwaves whenever he discussed a national topic.

“I have no plans and no plans to make plans,” was his common retort about a White House bid.

But political consultants say the media industry has changed so much that such a strategy will not work for Andrew Cuomo.

Chris Lapetina, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant who worked for Mario Cuomo during his final four years as governor, said Andrew Cuomo is playing the 2016 possibilities correctly now.

“It may always be a mistake to jump in early, but it’s especially bad right now. People just have a really horrible taste in their mouths about politics right now,” he said.

“Maybe in the early 1980s or 1990s you could jump in early and you’d be seen as a go-getter. I think now people look at politicians who do that and say we’ve had enough of that,” Lapetina said.

Still, the consultant said he hopes Cuomo or those close to him would send a signal to backers.

“I wish somebody who was very close to Andrew and who everybody knows is close to Andrew would start some kind of social media site or Web page because it would open the floodgates and others would jump on board. When it would get reported that it was someone close to Andrew, that would be an important signal, not from Andrew per se, to his supporters that we can talk about Andrew for 2016,” Lapetina said.

That could create pitfalls for Cuomo, who talks of his closeness with former President Bill Clinton. Cuomo was federal housing secretary during the Clinton administration.

Respecting Clintons

Being seen as doing anything to undermine Hillary Clinton now before she has made up her mind on a presidential run presents potential political damage for the New York governor, Cuomo watchers say.

“I think part of Andrew’s motivation now is he’s very respectful of the Clintons … I don’t think he’d want to do anything to be disrespectful to her,” Lapetina said.

This past spring, in a public radio interview, Cuomo said he believes the public “is tired” of the media’s whir of presidential speculation.

“Hillary Clinton is going to do whatever Hillary Clinton is going to do. I am doing what I am doing, and I am focused on running this state and doing it the best I can,” he said.

“To the extent I am focusing on politics, it’s my race next year,” Cuomo added.

In addition, early polls show Cuomo trailing far behind Clinton.

A CNN/ORC International survey last week showed Clinton, among the field of possible 2016 Democrats, getting support from 65 percent of Democrats and independents who tend to vote Democratic, compared with 10 percent for Biden, 10 percent for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 7 percent for Cuomo and 2 percent for O’Malley of Maryland.

Swift decision

But if Clinton does not run and Cuomo wants in, political analysts say, he will have to make swift decisions after next fall’s elections.

They say Cuomo could improve his standing within the party by helping Democratic members of Congress raise money in New York or by donating some of his huge stockpile of campaign cash – $27.8 million as of July – to candidates outside the state as other potential presidential candidates are now doing.

Given the Clinton and Biden uncertainties, major foreign events, partisan battles in Washington, concerns about the economy and his own re-election focus, Cuomo has few choices but to stay on the sidelines for now, analysts say.

“In order for him to improve the situation, he needs to become a great governor of New York and as someone viewed in that way in New York … With respect to New York, he’s fully in control of that, but breaking into the national picture now? There’s just too much going on at this moment that would drown out anything he would try to do,’’ said Shapiro, the Columbia University political scientist.