Prince Andrew Cuomo in a contemplative moment

“A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair.”   –Niccolo Machiavelli

Within a few days, New York Governor David Paterson will appoint a successor to Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate. I’m going out on a limb to forecast that he will name state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, not the person on whom all eyes have been trained for more than a month, Dame Caroline Kennedy (that’s a prediction, not necessarily a preference).

Like Dame Caroline, Prince Andrew regards the holding of high office as a matter of ordained privilege. Specifically, he almost certainly wants — and expects — to sit in the Governor’s chair once held by his father. He ran for Governor once and lost; then settled for Attorney General but only as a stepping stone; and is virtually certain to run for Governor again unless he gets a better offer.

And therein lies the problem for David Paterson. Paterson is an accidental Governor who will face a host of problems of the sort that make governors unpopular in the year or so leading up to the 2010 election when he’ll have to win a full term by himself. Ahead of him are deep cuts in state programs, tax increases, and constant battles with the state legislature, New York City and other local governments, and every constituency whose support he’ll desperately need.

The last thing David Paterson wants to face on top of all this is a Democratic primary waged by a smart, ambitious, well-known, well-financed and popular elected official who will have the luxury of being on the sidelines in all those fights over money. He’ll have a big enough challenge beating his Republican opponent, especially if the GOP manages to field a formidable candidate like Rudy Giuliani.

But a primary is just what he’ll get, if Andrew Cuomo is still Attorney General in 2010. By then, Prince Andrew will be, at 53, no longer a young upstart. He’ll have served in a President’s cabinet and in statewide office, and he’ll see himself pushing 60 or 65 when the next chance to move into the Governor’s office comes along. He’ll want his inheritance, so he’ll run.

On the other hand, Paterson could tap his shoulder and make him a Senator! That gets him out of Paterson’s way and, not incidentally, gives the New York Democratic ticket some added appeal to voters in 2010.

In a race against Rudy, running with Cuomo would give Paterson a strong boost. In recent weeks, the compelling logic of this appointment for Paterson was undermined by the unexpected push for Dame Caroline. Pressed by various Kennedy family members, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others, none of whom hold David Paterson’s interests uppermost, the Kennedy boomlet picked up a lot of media-driven momentum for a while, then gradually deflated as the Lady of Camelot showed herself to be such a novice at politics and public affairs that she might lose the Senate seat in 2010, much less help Paterson and the Democratic ticket.

Voters have been paying attention as Kennedy embarrassed herself. Two new polls show New Yorkers prefer Cuomo to Kennedy for the Senate, with Kennedy having lost support since December.

In a new Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, voters preferred Cuomo over Kennedy by 31% to 24%. This represented a sharp decline for Kennedy from a December 23rd poll — taken before she traveled the state and tried answering some reporters’ questions — when she edged Cuomo 33-29. Given that Kennedy almost totally monopolized media attention for a month, an even more significant result from this poll may be that 62% of voters who had choice picked someone other than Dame Caroline. Even more damaging is Quinnipiac’s finding that voters say, 48% to 37%, that Kennedy is not qualified to be a U.S. Senator.

A new Marist poll out Thursday paints a worse picture for Dame Caroline, with Cuomo beating her by an even larger margin, 40% to 25% among all New York voters and 39 to 31% among Democrats. That’s also a big decline for Dame Caroline from Marist’s survey a month ago, when the two were deadlocked 25-25. Marist also finds that many more New Yorkers believe Cuomo will do a good or excellent job as Senator. Kennedy has also lagged Cuomo in other recent polls.

Cuomo has played his cards carefully, avoiding any public acknowledgement of the fact that he was even seeking the Senate seat out of deference to Paterson. In contrast, Kennedy’s high-profile mini-campaign, in addition to revealing her deficiencies, was reported to have angered Paterson who understandably resented the effort to steamroll him on what may be the single most important political decision he makes before his 2010 candidacy.

Of course, the appointment is made by one person, Governor Paterson, who may not be moved by surveys of notoriously fickle voter opinion. But in light of the other, substantial reasons why a Cuomo pick would be better for Paterson, if I had any money (I am still waiting for my bailout!), I’d bet it on Prince Andrew.

(Visit me at The Purple Center)