Why New York's attorney general is the leading candidate to replace Hillary.

The speculation about who will replace Hillary Clinton has reduced New York governor David Paterson’s choice to a contest among voting blocs. Will Paterson want to placate Hispanics (with Representative Jose Serrano, for instance), women (Reprepresentative Kirsten Gillibrand), or suburbanites (Nassau County executive Thomas Suozzi)? Even the governor has gotten into the identity-politics game: Asked yesterday if it’s important that a senator be hail from somewhere other than New York City, Paterson responded, “It’s very important.” The irony is that the most politically expedient choice for Paterson happens to be a white guy from New York City: Andrew Cuomo.

As an unelected governor with fragile poll numbers and the responsibility for rescuing New York from a spiraling financial mess, Paterson has three important factors to weigh: Which candidate will court the least controversy? Who will have the most juice in Washington? And who is the safest choice to defend the seat in 2010? All of these questions point in the direction of New York’s attorney general.

For Paterson, Cuomo is by far the safest choice. Of all the potential candidates (Paterson has taken himself out of the running), Cuomo is the only statewide elected official. He’s got an approval rating of 61 percent, high name recognition, and broad support among Democrats and Republicans. He was the number one choice to replace Clinton among 43 percent of registered New York voters (including 50% Republican voters), according to last week’s Marist Poll. Placing second were Puerto Rican congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and congresswoman Nita Lowey, both with 5 percent.

Despite heavy turnover among his staff attorneys, Cuomo has had a successful two years in office, starting with his probe of the college student loan industry. His inquiries into home appraisers, sub-prime lenders, and the credit default swap market have made him a player in the financial crisis, while the other candidates have been relegated to spectators seats. “It’s a big job. It’s not a job for someone who could be seen as a little light on the issues,” as one friend and adviser to Cuomo put it. True, Paterson wouldn’t be appeasing a particular base by elevating Cuomo, but he would also risk less of a backlash. An overt bid to satisfy one bloc could wind up alienating another. Elevating a congressman would only breed resentment and jealousy among the rest of the delegation.

Plus, picking Cuomo doesn’t mean that the special constituency box won’t get checked off. The Legislature would appoint a new attorney general, probably from within the ranks of the Democratic Assembly conference, which controls the most votes and may decide to replace Cuomo with a minority, woman, or upstate representative.

As he grapples with a budget deficit approaching $15 billion, Paterson has a strong incentive to favor somebody most likely to bring home the most federal aid. Again, Cuomo has an advantage that goes beyond his star power. Owing to his years in Bill Clinton’s Housing and Urban Development department, he has built-in relationships with Congress and with many of the Clintonites taking charge in the Obama administration. He’s also connected to David Axelrod, who was a media consultant to Cuomo’s 2006 campaign.

Finally, when Paterson’s looking ahead to 2010, he’s going to want to favor the person with the most electability. The governor, who may be facing a competitive challenge from Rudy Giuliani, will want someone who will draw the most Democratic votes to protect his own bid. But more important, winning in 2010 and in 2012 is the chief concern of the one person with the most veto power over Paterson’s pick: New York’s senior senator and outgoing head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Chuck Schumer.

Ideally, Schumer would rather not have to share the stage with another brash, outsized personality. In Albany, as Schumer undoubtedly recalls, Cuomo didn’t exactly play nice with former governor Eliot Spitzer, who he investigated aggressively for his role in last year’s Troopergate scandal. But at this point in his political career, ensconced in the Senate leadership, Schumer doesn’t have to worry about jockeying with the likes of Cuomo. He’s within a hair’s breadth of becoming majority leader. Schumer is most interested in simply protecting the seat. “It would be really annoying for him if Paterson picks someone who is weak and Democrats lose a seat in New York of all places,” said one well-placed source.

So Cuomo would be the expedient political choice. But does he want the job? The attorney general isn’t openly campaigning for it, but judging by the intensity with which his friends and political advisers are advocating his case, it’s doubtful he would turn it down. Cuomo has long had his sights on the governor’s mansion, which his father so memorably occupied for a dozen years. Barring a Paterson collapse (which, given New York’s recent history, wouldn’t be totally shocking), that door’s closed for the next six years. Few expect him to run against a black Democrat for governor. Cuomo could stay put for eight years like his predecessor Spitzer did and wait his turn, but some in Albany suspect he’s feeling restless. As a state official, even in New York, there’s so much he can do to stay relevant during the economic crisis. His aides know that the real game is on the federal regulatory level.

Paterson is also keeping quiet. His advisers have signaled an interest in a few of the Congressional candidates, including Velazquez. But political observers around the statehouse suspect that the early parade of front-runners amounts to head-fakes designed to demonstrate that the governor is at least keeping an open mind. At a recent private dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, he joked to the guests, according to one attendee: “Look under your plates. If you find a gold seal, you’re the next United States senator.” Don’t be surprised if that gold seal finds its way to Cuomo’s dinner table.

Jacob Gershman is the former Albany correspondent for The New York Sun.

By Jacob Gershman