By Samuel P. Jacobs
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Say you're a Democratic governor, judged to have presidential ambitions once Barack Obama exits the stage. Where would you spend the day before your party's national convention in Charlotte?
Courting the delegates and donors starting to pour into town? Doing the rounds of morning television news shows? Hitting the evening party circuit?
None of the above for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who on Monday chose to stay 600 miles away in the New York City neighborhood of Crown Heights, marching along with celebrants in a West Indian parade.
Cuomo's absence contrasts with the high profiles of other rising stars such as Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. A regular on the Sunday talk shows and a proud brawler for Obama, O'Malley headed to downtown Charlotte intending to strap on a guitar and perform with actor Jeff Bridges. (The gig was rained out.)
As the Democratic Party uses its convention to nominate Obama for president and make the case for his re-election, it also will use the stage to shine a light on its next generation of leaders. While O'Malley is proving ubiquitous in Charlotte - even bringing his band along with him - Cuomo will be a blur, visiting for one day and avoiding the type of star-making convention speech that made his father, Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, a national figure 28 years ago.
By staying out of the spotlight in Charlotte, Andrew Cuomo can avoid any criticism that he would be trying to upstage the Democrats' campaign in 2012 to further his own ambitions.
It's a routine that Cuomo has perfected since winning the governor's seat two years ago.
Besides attending an occasional out-of-state fundraiser, Cuomo rarely has crossed state lines, saying that his sole focus is overseeing the nation's third-largest state and third-biggest economy at a time when New York's unemployment rate - 9.1 percent in July - is above the national average of 8.3 percent.
When asked about his plans recently, Cuomo told reporters: "I will go to the convention and pay my respects to Mr. Obama. I'll do what I can to help re-elect President Obama. ... But my job is being governor of the state of New York, and that's a job that's done in the state of New York."
Many political analysts in New York see Cuomo's reluctance to be seen anywhere outside the state as an affirmation of his national ambition, rather than a sign that he lacks it.
Cuomo need only look to his neighbor, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for a lesson in the potential pitfalls of being an outsized presence at a convention dedicated to electing someone else.
After his keynote address in Tampa, Florida, last week at the convention where Republicans nominated Mitt Romney for president, Christie was criticized because his speech focused heavily on his own exploits in New Jersey - where the unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in July.
"Chris Christie came off like a wise guy," New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said. "Andrew Cuomo is acting like a smart guy."
PRESERVING HIS POPULARITY
With an approval rating in New York that crested above 70 percent this spring, Cuomo is among the most popular leaders in the Democratic Party. While he safeguards that reputation, Cuomo is depriving the Obama campaign of a surrogate whose record and background could be greatly helpful.
Cuomo's championing of same-sex marriage in New York makes him a favorite of progressives. Cuomo has built a reputation of fiscal responsibility while working with a Republican legislature, making him an attractive voice for voters yearning for across-the-aisle success stories.
As a Catholic and Italian-American, Cuomo, like Vice President Joe Biden, could be a strong surrogate for the president among conservative Democrats in the Rust Belt.
Cuomo's invisibility in Charlotte is also in sharp contrast to his presence at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles 12 years ago.
Then, Cuomo was a housing secretary in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet, eyed as a possible challenger in the New York gubernatorial race. He bobbed from state delegation breakfast to affinity group meeting, with a New York Times reporter in tow. That week, Cuomo's schedule of events ran 23 pages long.
Cuomo's demurrals also part from the attention-grabbing flirtations with a run for higher office undertaken by his father, Mario. The elder Cuomo earned the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson" for his public equivocations over whether to run for president in 1992. He eventually decided not to run.
Even with the benefit of Manhattan's media megaphone, Andrew Cuomo remains an uncertain figure for many party activists here.
"I know very little about him except that he wants to run in 2016," said Ana Canales, 59, a delegate from New Mexico and Democratic Party chairwoman in Bernalillo, the state's most populous county.
Delegates have come to expect tributes from anyone with designs on a White House run.
"He should be here and mingle if he wants people to vote for him," Canales said. "He should put in the time."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Doina Chiacu)