NEW YORK – Just a week before the primary, former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo abandoned his sinking campaign for governor Tuesday and threw his support to a fellow Democrat in the race for the job once held by Cuomo's father.
The withdrawal cleared the way for state Comptroller H. Carl McCall to challenge two-term Gov. George Pataki, the Republican who ousted Mario Cuomo eight years ago.
The younger Cuomo had had a commanding early lead in the polls, but by the time he dropped out, he was trailing McCall by more than 20 points.
Cuomo, 44, had failed to win support from such high-profile Democrats as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and had committed a series of missteps -- the most visible coming when he charged that Pataki had merely held Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's coat in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Even Cuomo's father called the remark a political mistake.
Cuomo said advisers had told him he could cut the gap in the polls and maybe win by attacking McCall, but he refused. Citing the upcoming anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the former Clinton administration Cabinet member said: "We need healing now, maybe more than ever before."
"I will not close a gap in an election by opening one in the body politic," Cuomo said at a news conference, surrounded by family and friends, including his father and former President Clinton.
McCall, the only black candidate ever elected to statewide office in New York, later thanked Cuomo and welcomed his support.
The two campaigns had begun talks over the weekend about presenting a unified Democratic front. According to polls, Pataki holds a strong lead over either Democrat.
While the Clintons are officially neutral in the primary, there had been signs that they were leaning toward McCall.
On Friday, the Clintons were at the State Fair in Syracuse at the same time as Cuomo. The three did not even manage a photograph together. On Monday, Sen. Clinton and McCall marched side by side at a parade in New York; Cuomo arrived nearly two hours after the parade began, blaming scheduling conflicts and traffic.
Cuomo entered the race as the favorite last year, and quickly outpaced the comptroller in fund raising. Not only did he have a famous New York name, but he was also married to a member of the Kennedy family and had worked for Clinton.
But while Cuomo had served as his father's top political adviser for years, the race was his first as a candidate.
Besides drawing widespread criticism for questioning Pataki's leadership, Cuomo stunned Democrats by dropping out of the state convention and deciding instead to collect voter signatures to get on the primary ballot.
McCall, 66, in contrast, has run a steady campaign focusing on his rise out of poverty, a long resume that includes a stint as a deputy ambassador to the United Nations, and his promise to improve education.
While discounting the impact of his coat-holder comment, Cuomo conceded Thursday that McCall's TV advertising was better -- more simple and direct -- than his own. Cuomo, on the stump and on the air, often flitted from idea to idea.
"You can sometimes have too many good ideas," he said. "When you try to communicate too many ideas, sometimes you wind up communicating nothing."
A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed McCall leading Cuomo 47 percent to 25 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. The telephone poll of 452 people was conducted Aug. 26-Sept. 1 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
As for Cuomo's political future, "we certainly have not heard the last from Andrew Cuomo," said former Mayor Ed Koch, who lost a Democratic primary for governor to the elder Cuomo in 1982 and is backing Pataki this year.