Under attack, the Cuomo campaign shifts into low gear

Does Andrew Cuomo have a plan for the M.T.A.? (Photo courtesy Cuomo 2010.)
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ALBANY—When will Andrew Cuomo come out and make the argument that Carl Paladino isn’t competent to govern? In the nine days since the Buffalo developer trounced his primary competition to become the Republican Party’s standard bearer, Cuomo’s response has kicked into gear, but the attorney general—who is supposed to be popular, and who is supposed to win this election by a 40-point margin—has left an opening.

As Paladino has lobbed bomb after bomb at Cuomo—including a graphic depiction of Cuomo in the shower, wearing a gold chain and washing the special interest muck off his body, and a letter questioning whether he has the “manhood” to debate—Cuomo has stood silent, indicating that it is The People who will have to decide what to do about Paladino, while allowing his surrogates to respond in kind. So the surrogates have gone out and called Paladino a racist and a “wacko” and, worse, a hypocrite, attacking him for making political contributions and then accepting state leases. To drive home that point, the state Democratic Party put out a Photoshopped flier showing Paladino as a pig slopping from a trough.

Cuomo's decision to leave the rough stuff to others, while no doubt approving every word they said, was a cute trick. Also: none of it seemed to work.

Here's part of a message I got, unsolicited, from a Democratic strategist after the pig flier: “I can’t believe they put out that flier. Don’t they know they’re playing perfectly into Roger Stone’s hands? Here’s what you say: You say, ‘Carl. I know people are mad. They should be. But it’s not enough just to be mad.’ Then you just slam that 800-page book on the table and you say, ‘Here’s my plan, where’s yours?’”

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The textbook play, to highlight Paladino's behavioral offenses, a number of which might be dealbreakers in a conventional New York election, is tempting. (Carl Paladino seems to say at least one thing every day that makes Al D'Amato's coffin-nailing "putzhead" comment in the 1998 Senate race seem positively quaint.) And so, on Monday, it was Jewish leaders attacking Paladino’s “unconscionable” remarks in support of the characterization of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as the “anti-Christ.” On Tuesday it was a union leader in Buffalo hitting Paladino for taking tax breaks, and Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher denouncing racist e-mails Paladino sent.

The problem is that this shows no signs of being a conventional New York election. On Wednesday, a Quinnipiac poll showed Paladino within six points of Cuomo, who did not win the support of a majority of voters.

Paladino’s message has the advantage of being very simple. It plays on anger, and leverages the fact that a super-majority of the electorate (67 percent as of August) thinks New York is heading in the wrong direction. As I traveled to Buffalo to see Paladino on primary night, I met a few guys—unemployed construction workers—who recognized Cuomo would win in the end, but who were really enthusiastic about Paladino anyway.

“It’s going to be too much downstate, just like his father," said one of the guys, named John, of Cuomo. "He’s going to win the election, we all know that, but I think he would suck. He’s just another downstate piece of shit.”

Paladino’s message has tapped into the greater id of Upstate Americans, who know things are bad, know government hasn’t helped them, and want to burn the house down. At his victory party, I met a guy wearing Paladino signs stapled onto a shirt who couldn’t vote for him in the primary, but wanted to come out and offer his energetic support.

Paladino is the arsonist, and his outlandish, offensive statements only serve to reinforce the impression that he’s actually crazy enough to set things off. The Cuomo-approved attacks—which have been designed to highlight his wackiness, rather than, say, his ignorance—simply reinforce this.

When Paladino manager Michael Caputo defends the shock politics of his campaign, he does so with the air of a man who can't believe his good fortune.

“We’re not calling him to the gutter, we’re calling him to the street—that’s where the people are,” he said.

“When he dropped out of his governor’s race in 2002, they learned one lesson: keep Andrew in the box," he said. "He’s been in the box for eight years. He’s going to have to crawl out of the box, and we’re not going to settle for anyone else. Everyone knows what a surrogate is now. What he’s doing isn’t working because he’s throwing old hand grenades, well past their expiration date. He’s running a 1984 campaign.”

This was, arguably, precisely the same mistake that was made by Rick Lazio and his establishment Republican backers, whom Paladino trounced in the primary.

Of course, Cuomo has personal approval numbers that Lazio could only have dreamed of. (Cuomo's approval rating in the Quinnipiac Poll is 67 percent.) But that's more of a reflection of the work he’s done as attorney general than an indication of the public's deep love for him, whatever Cuomo may think.

As Caputo pointed out in boasting about the poll, “eighty-nine percent of undecideds are familiar with Cuomo but they are not voting for him.”

This ought to be especially unacceptable for Cuomo, who in recent weeks has started saying that this election is not just a head-to-head contest, but a chance to build a "big tent" coalition and arm it for a January battle to change Albany. It means assuming that African-Americans and public employees will be motivated to rally around his candidacy, even as he targets conservative-minded independents with his talk of reforming and shrinking state government and capping taxes. It’s not about revving up his base and getting his voters to the polls; it’s about persuading the people who do vote that he's their guy. If that involves a less-than-record turnout, well, given the overall electoral attitudes toward incumbents who in New York are all Democrats, then so be it.

The day the Quinnipiac poll landed, Cuomo signaled a shift in his strategy.

He said he takes all polls “with a grain of salt” and said Albany right now needs “someone who is committed to changing Albany and has the capacity to change Albany,” a case he made without saying the word "Paladino." “Someone who is committed to changing Albany and has the capacity to change Albany.”

“So, name-calling? No. But in terms of the issues, that is a conversation that I’m excited to have,” Cuomo said at a press conference in Albany. “Who has a better plan to change this state? Who has the experience to change this state? Who’s been part of changing Albany, versus, who has been part of the pay-to-play system in Albany? That’s a dialog I’m excited to have. Who actually understands government and the Albany situation so you can actually make progress?”

When asked to offer a substantive critique of Paladino, Cuomo replied: “No. I don’t think it’s my place to critique him.”

Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Albany Times Union and principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog.