As the number of Americans impacted by the deadly coronavirus continues to climb, some voters looking for decisive action are turning to state leaders for guidance– chief among them, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press conferences and emphatic communication style has gradually captivated audiences across the nation over the last month.
The spotlight on Cuomo comes at a critical time for Democrats looking for tangible leadership in the primary season. With former Vice President Joe Biden confined to offering somewhat limited communication from his home studio, Cuomo appears as a fiery option for Democrats who perceive President Trump's response to the coronavirus crisis as slow and inadequate.
Recent polling also boosted the optics of Cuomo's favorability amid the crisis. According to a poll conducted by Siena College 87% of New Yorkers approve of the governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while 41% approve of President Trump’s handling of the same issue.
On Monday, in an interview with “Fox and Friends,” Trump said Cuomo would “probably” be a better candidate than the former vice president, further fueling the speculation. But Cuomo vehemently dismissed any notion of him pursuing a bid for the White House later Monday, but did not mention his support for Biden.
“I am not engaging the president in politics. My only goal is to engage the president in partnership. This is no time for politics,” Cuomo said during his daily press conference. “I'm not going to get into a political dispute with the president. I'm not going to rise to the bait of a political challenge. I'm not running for president. I was never running for president. I said from day one I wasn't running for president and I'm not running for president now.”
"I've known Joe Biden many, many years. I worked with him when he was vice president. He has been a tremendous asset to the state of New York when he was the Vice President with President Obama," Cuomo said. "So I've worked with him on a professional level. I know him very well personally. I can't say enough good things about Joe Biden, so I think he's a great public servant."
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Cuomo’s sudden emergence into the national spotlight isn’t all that sudden, though. His rise has stemmed from daily press conferences on his administration’s efforts to combat the “invisible beast,” as he described it on Friday.
During his public briefings, now a fixture on cable news, he rattles off facts and figures, shows empathy about the personal toll of the virus, and channels the country’s frustration over the paralyzing virus. All the while, Cuomo is offering a glimpse into his governance style for a country seeking leadership and comfort amid deepening anxiety.
“The rescue mission is to save lives and as hard as we work, we're not going to be able to save everyone. And what's even more cruel is this enemy doesn't attack the strongest of us. It attacks the weakest of us,” he said during his Friday press briefing. “I promise you I will not ask you to do anything that I will not do myself. And the same is true here. We're going to do this and we're going to do this together.”
As his state finds itself as the epicenter of the domestic outbreak - with at least 1,218 deaths in the state and over 66,000 confirmed cases - Cuomo, known for his dogged and abrasive style, has treaded carefully between confronting the White House as his state grapples with surging cases of the virus and not directly criticizing the the president.
“My relationship right now with the federal government is not a political relationship,” Cuomo said Friday in a radio interview. “It's a fundamental constitutional operational relationship.”
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on his past flirtations with a presidential bid.
But despite his attempts at being apolitical, the governor’s press conferences tend to fall into the political arena as they often directly precede the messaging coming from the podium at the White House. The ensuing optics of Trump’s public blows targeting Cuomo usher in the type of back-and-forth sparring typically seen on the campaign trail.
"Democrats, all along, have been deeply worried about Trump's getting elected to a second term. This is simply an extension of that. And they're looking around for the strongest possible candidate to nominate," Larry Sabato, a political scientist and the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told ABC News.
Cuomo has emerged as a possible, but not plausible, alternative to square off against the president, not only because of the coronavirus, Sabato said, but because of the current state of the Democratic race.
"The scene has changed...Biden was able to derail Sanders," Sabato said, calling the Vermont senator the great "fear" of mainstream Democratic leadership. "Then they started refocusing and seeing all of [Biden’s] drawbacks."
"They're focusing now on his age and, you know, the lack of articulation and fill in the blank. They just wonder if he's vigorous enough to take on Trump," he added.
While Democrats turn inward to reflect on a Biden nomination, as that path became all the more certain, Sabato asserted, "That's where Cuomo comes in....As the old saying goes, Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love."
Democrats, he said, "have not fallen in love with Joe Biden" but "found him a useful instrument to derail Bernie Sanders. Now they're looking around to fall in love with someone else...and Cuomo has done so well in his public presentations."
"Most think his performances have been far, far better than Trump's at Trump's own press conferences," he said.
Sources close to Cuomo told ABC News that the three-term governor considered a 2020 bid, but ultimately decided to back his close ally, Biden, instead. The two have been close for a long time, and amid the public health emergency, Biden and Cuomo are in contact every day.
Despite the newest round of speculation around Cuomo’s political ambitions, as a longtime backer of the former vice president, he is sanguine about Biden’s rise in the primaries. Cuomo endorsed Biden last year.
In recent weeks, Biden, in turn, has praised an array of state leaders for their work to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, and specifically pointed to Cuomo's briefings as “a lesson in leadership.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment on the speculation surrounding Cuomo.
It is also theoretically too late for Cuomo to clinch the nomination, even with the primary temporary on pause. Two months into the nominating contest, only 1,668 delegates remain to be awarded, more than 300 short of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination outright.
But as Cuomo gains national political notoriety, questions remain about whether he would in fact entertain seeking higher office, as the impacts of coronavirus worsen, and after the 2020 presidential primary surpassed the halfway marker in the delegate race.
In a radio interview Thursday, Cuomo was asked to weigh in on rumblings about a potential pursuit of the White House, or becoming a vice presidential pick, both of which he also rebuffed.
“I’m not going to run for president, I didn’t run for president, I don’t want to be vice president,” Cuomo said in an interview on WAMC Northeast Public Radio with Alan Chartock.
Cuomo maintained that he isn’t doing anything new, he is only treating the crisis in the same way as he would any emergency.
“I want to be the best governor I can be and I want to make a meaningful difference in this state,” he told Chartock. “That’s my ambition.”
Even if Cuomo decided to test the 2020 campaign waters, political experts say it’s highly unlikely New York’s chief executive would even be able to enter the race at this point.
"It's not gonna happen, obviously unless Biden is forced to step aside because of illness or God knows what," Sabato said, adding it could only happen if Biden eliminated himself.
"I don't think he can qualify for most of those primaries because their filing dates passed already," he said. "This would have to be a spontaneous movement of delegates away from Biden and toward Cuomo, and those things don't happen unless a candidate has to withdraw."
Additionally, Cuomo would likely face an uphill battle in his own state and across the country if he faced the task of unifying the Democratic party while it remains divided between the progressive and moderate lanes -- a battle he already fought during his 2018 reelection campaign.
L. Joy Williams, a former top campaign adviser to actress Cynthia Nixon, who ran against Cuomo in the 2018 New York gubernatorial primary, says so far, the New York governor has done well with communicating information to the public, while also expressing the needs of his state to the federal government. But despite Cuomo’s leadership efforts under current conditions, Williams’ view hasn’t changed over the last two years.
“I am not on the Draft Cuomo 2020 train...at all,” Williams told ABC News over text message.
In 2018, Nixon’s campaign painted Cuomo, whose father, Mario Cuomo served three-terms as governor of the state, as not liberal enough for the modern Democratic Party. Cuomo also weathered criticism for his close relationships with the New York political elite against a backdrop of progressives ascending to political influence across the Empire State, including now-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“At the same time that he is driving a strong hand to manage this crisis, that same strong hand is insisting on cutting Medicaid funds in the state and negotiating rolling back bail reform,” Williams said.
Although Williams did not express a current preference for either Biden or Sanders, she said she was thankful the New York primary was pushed back to June 23 so that she had more time to decide which candidate to back.
“I think some voters are frustrated with the remaining choices,” Williams said when asked to weigh in on the primary. “And I think people are looking for strong alternatives.”
She’s likely not alone -- nearly two million votes were cast in the 2016 Democratic primary in New York, and now, 2020 Democratic hopefuls have a few more weeks to adjust their messaging amid a jumbled primary calendar.
“The Democratic candidates have a lot of opportunity to demonstrate leadership here and their team would be wise not to miss the moment,” Williams advised.