NY Democrats' binary choice for governor

Nearly 72 percent of NY voters in a Siena Poll published this week said that they would prefer "someone else" in 2010 for governor over Gov. David Paterson. But people involved in politics in NY almost never ask themselves the question that way. They ask themselves, "Do I want David Paterson? Or do I want Andrew Cuomo?" At least for now, that's how the choice seems to break down. As attorney general, Cuomo has taken on so many high-profile battles -- and has even won a few -- that he's approaching that gold standard of politics: inevitability.

As NY Democrats try to decide who to support for governor -- a decision that will become more urgent after Election Day on Nov. 3 -- they're watching both men closely. Paterson met with his advisers on a recent Monday night, Oct. 12. They told him that the people close to him understand his strengths as a leader -- intelligence, consensus-building, fine oratorical skills -- but that the ectorate has not yet seen the real David Paterson. The way he ascended to the post, without a long race during which the public could vet him, is partly to blame. So is the global economic melt-down. With his approval rating at 19 percent, the advisers probably didn't have to work too hard to convince him to try something different.

Two days after that meeting, Paterson announced a plan to take on the $3 billion budget deficit. He has been aggressively making the rounds of radio and television shows to demonstrate his leadership. His appearance on NY1 this week was particularly memorable, as he berated "Saturday Night Live" for portraying him as a bumbler.

Many Democrats are rooting for Paterson behind the scenes. He's a "nice guy," but his ability to follow through with initiatives remains in question. In that sense, this recent call to cut the budget is a significant test, as is his proposal today to bring the issue of gay marriage to a vote by the end of the year.

"Nice guy" are not the first words people use to describe Andrew Cuomo. Many remember him as a campaign "enforcer" during the years his father, Mario Cuomo, was governor. I moved to NY in 2003 and did not personally witness those days. What I see now is an attorney general making good on campaign promises to clean up government. But he also pulls no punches with other leading Democrats who might be considered rivals -- or distractions on the march toward inevitability? -- people such as Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Is Cuomo's hard-charging style evidence that the enforcer lives beneath the surface? Time will tell.