ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has spent weeks unofficially running for New York governor, meeting potential supporters statewide and taking occasional jabs at Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
Gov. Cuomo isn't returning fire at Astorino, though he notes in speeches that Westchester is the nation's highest taxed county. And Astorino upset some Democrats over a joke he made three years ago about Medicaid recipients.
Welcome to the campaign before the official campaign.
With elections nine months away, this is the time when potential rivals shadowbox in their corners and maybe glare at each other. The main contest begins once candidates — including possible challengers Astorino or Donald Trump — officially hit the campaign trail. This is a time for politicians to preview campaign themes, hone attack lines, raise money and express indignation.
"They're feeling one another out. They're testing their punches," said Baruch College political science professor Douglas Muzzio.
Neither Trump nor Astorino has officially announced their candidacy, and Trump has a long history of flirting with runs that don't materialize. Astorino is expected to announce his decision around the end of the month and has already created a campaign committee. Both men have been making the sort of base-pleasing criticisms of Cuomo expected of a GOP standard bearer.
Trump told a roomful of applauding Republicans near Buffalo recently that Cuomo is "going to take away your guns." Astorino has talked about the governor's "phony" property tax relief rebate plan and repeatedly asks if New York state is winning or losing when it comes to business climate and taxes.
Astorino was among the Republicans who pounced last month after Cuomo said in a radio interview that "extreme conservatives" with pro-assault weapon, anti-abortion and anti-gay views "have no place in the state of New York." Cuomo and his staff have explained he was making the point that New York is a politically moderate state.
The continuing chorus of GOP outrage maximizes mileage over an incident in a state where Republicans are heavily outnumbered by Democrats. Cuomo enters the election year with high poll numbers and $33 million in his campaign account, a formidable sum that could fund a TV ad blitz in every state market from New York City to Buffalo.
A Quinnipiac University poll on Thursday found Cuomo trouncing Astorino and Trump in potential matchups by more than 30 percentage points each.
What will the Cuomo re-election campaign look like? His budget provides hints. The document is loaded with tax relief proposals, and he argued in his budget speech that New York was saved from inefficiency and financial irresponsibility during his term.
It's standard practice for incumbents who feel secure to publicly ignore potential challengers, and Cuomo has played to type. But Cuomo in his State of the State speech did note that Astorino's county has the highest property taxes in the country. And he said it again during his budget presentation.
And even if the governor won't directly engage with Astorino, others will.
Abortion-rights groups renewed criticism for his 2012 veto of county legislation to create a harassment-free buffer zone around reproductive health clinics.
More recently, Astorino took fresh heat for a TV interview in which he said "soup is good" when questioned on how Medicaid recipients would chew if dentures were no longer covered. The interview was in 2011, and aides said it was merely a joke. But a story in the New York Daily News led the Democratic conference leader of the state Senate, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to release a statement saying, "It isn't a joke to the poor and elderly" on Medicaid.
The lines of attack — that Astorino is anti-abortion and hostile to Medicaid recipients — could be potent in a general election in such a Democrat-heavy state. Muzzio said Astorino can expect more of the same if he officially runs.
"They're already beginning to throw hardballs at his head. They're warning him," Muzzio said "It's a brush back. Then they'll throw it higher and tighter."