Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whose aggressive pursuit of wrongdoers on Wall Street has made him New York's most popular Democrat, wants to be its next governor.

But one man stands in his way: David Paterson, the first black, and legally blind, governor in state history and now one of that office's most unpopular Democrats. The former lieutenant governor was thrust into office when Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace after getting caught up in a prostitution scandal. Many saw him as an officeholder until the next election, but he says he intends to run for a full four-year term of his own next year.

Yet he is presiding over a nearly dysfunctional state government that is deeply in debt, and a Democratic-run legislature that has been spending money like there's no tomorrow and raising taxes on just about anything that moves. Polls show nearly two-thirds of the state's voters think Paterson does not deserve to be elected, and that in a head-to-head primary fight, Cuomo would trounce him by 61 percent to 18 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University survey.

In a general-election matchup, Cuomo beats Republican Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, who is also thinking about running -- depending on who his opponent will be.

Cuomo hopes to follow in the footsteps of his legendary father, Mario Cuomo, who ran the state for 11 years. But for now, he does not want to challenge Paterson in what would surely be a deeply divisive party-primary fight that would make him a pariah among the black electorate.

He remembers ruefully what happened when he ran for governor in 2002, challenging black state Comptroller Carl McCall, the establishment's choice, in a bitter primary battle. Eventually, he dropped out of the race, his political career damaged by the resentment of the party's black leadership.

"That was a race he should not have run at that time. I think he would agree with that," Democratic Assemblywoman Vivian Cook of Jamaica, N.Y., told me.

So he is biding his time, hoping Paterson's unpopularity will force him from the race. Still, Cuomo is steadily building alliances for a gubernatorial campaign, fattening his campaign war chest, and taking well-aimed potshots at the fiscal mess in Albany, signaling that he will be ready if duty calls.

Meanwhile, Cuomo says he will run for re-election for AG and expects Paterson will head the ticket in 2010. As for Paterson's unpopularity, he told a recent political forum in Schenectady, "The polls go up, the polls go down. I'm very happy being attorney general."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.