By Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- It's only days after the presidential election, but the buzz is already underway about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's potential run for president in 2016.
Time magazine put him on its short list, calling him "the rough-hewn son of a Democratic icon."
Public Policy Polling, a national surveying company based in Raleigh, N.C., listed Cuomo third Thursday in the 2016 Iowa caucuses behind Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. Clinton was a huge favorite.
As the popular Democratic governor heads into the final two years of his first term, Cuomo will be dogged by questions about whether he'll run for the White House in four years.
"The next two years set him up if he's going to run for president in 2016," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York City-based Democratic consultant.
Cuomo has taken pains to avoid the presidential speculation. Since taking office in January 2011, he has never left the state overnight. He stays away from national political shows; he did some recently to highlight the damage from Superstorm Sandy.
When he attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September, he came and left the same day. He gave a rousing speech, but only to the New York delegation -- rather than on the convention floor.
He was going to campaign in Florida for President Obama last month, and he warned his surrogate work shouldn't be misconstrued as a step onto the national stage. The trip was canceled because of the storm.
"If you politicize me, you cast aspersion on my motivations and intent, you suggest I have my own political agenda for doing things -- you're going to hurt my capacity and ability to serve as governor," Cuomo said on a radio show last month. "And I just won't allow that to happen."
Whether Cuomo will run for president provides intrigue in Albany, as does whether he would have a path to do so.
Clinton may stand in Cuomo's way in 2016, political experts said.
"You can't imagine him being a credible candidate if Hillary Clinton is in the race," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "I just can't imagine two major figures from New York running against one another. And Hillary would obviously have the leading role."
Cuomo's decision if the former New York senator is the mix is complicated on a professional and personal level. Former President Clinton is a close mentor to Cuomo, and Clinton hired Cuomo as his director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Cuomo's father, Mario, decided against a run for president in 1992 and stayed in Albany to finish his third term. He sought a fourth term in 1994, but lost to Republican George Pataki.
Lee Miringoff, a Marist College pollster, said he thinks Cuomo would not waver over his decision whether to run for president. Mario Cuomo was known as the "Hamlet on the Hudson" for his public wrangling over whether to run for the White House.
"Once he decides what he wants to do, then I think it would be a straight line for him," Miringoff said of the younger Cuomo. "I don't think we're going to see the vacillation of what his father did."
Cuomo, 54, will face re-election in 2014. He is unlikely to face a major threat. He has $19 million in his campaign coffers and a 70 percent approval rating in polls.
Sheinkopf said Cuomo would run for re-election on a record that could be a playbook for national office: He has preached fiscal austerity, yet has been socially liberal.
"His 2014 re-election campaign is the rehearsal for the 2016 presidential contest," Sheinkopf said.
Cuomo has touted working a bi-partisan fashion with Republicans who control the state Senate, citing it as a contrast with the gridlock in Washington. Senate Democrats may win control in January, leaving Cuomo with one-party rule.
With Senate Democrats, though, Cuomo could prevail on issues where he hasn't with Republicans - such as a minimum-wage increase, campaign-finance reform and the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.
Adding those achievements to his record could burnish his profile with national Democrats, particularly with unions and liberal voters in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, experts said. Cuomo's relationship with unions in New York has been rocky after negotiating austere new contracts last year.
"He clearly needs to position himself to the middle or the progressive side of middle in a Democratic primary," Miringoff said.
For Cuomo, though, he continues to focus on his job as governor, and there's no eye toward 2016, his allies said.
"That's been the mantra. The key to being successful is not allowing this to shift into something different," Steve Cohen, Cuomo's former top aide, said on 1300-AM (WGDJ) in Albany on Thursday. "You're evaluated differently, objectives change, the world looks very different. The focus has to be being governor, being the best governor you can be and not getting distracted."