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Is it Cuomo vs. Trump in the 2018 race for governor?


Gov. Andrew Cuomo has both a primary challenger and several general election opponents as he seeks a third term. But New Yorkers might be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the governor is actually running against President Donald Trump.

On nearly a daily basis, Cuomo spends a portion of his public events railing against Trump.

He spent three days in a row in late July critiquing what he said is the president’s failed cleanup efforts in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of two major hurricanes.

"Come back to Puerto Rico. Apologize for the mistake, say that you will make it right, provide funding for the reconstruction effort and provide help for the struggling economy. Puerto Rico never needed paper towels, Mr. President," Cuomo said, referring to Trump’s appearance last fall in Puerto Rico, where he distributed the paper products.

A few days later, the governor was with members of the health care workers union and hospital executives, where he vowed to fight attempts by the Trump administration to chip away at the Affordable Care Act. He also told the receptive crowd that he’s fighting the president on several other fronts.

"Just think of what they’re trying to do, what they’ve done to the immigrants on the border," Cuomo said, his voice rising. "Who are you to say who should be a new American? We’re all new Americans."

Cuomo is highlighting his attacks on the president in ads for his re-election, with a narrator declaring, "And now he’s taking on Trump," as ominous music plays in the background.

Steve Greenberg, a political analyst and spokesman for Siena College polls, said the governor’s focus makes "perfect political sense."

"He uses President Trump as a foil, which is a smart political strategy for the governor," Greenberg said. "He knows that the president is disliked and unfavorably viewed in his home state."

Greenberg said Cuomo is also using the power of his office to highlight topics that aren’t related to Trump, such as economic development grants.

The focus on Trump as a political opponent, though, helps Cuomo from having to mention his actual opponents for governor.

He faces a primary challenge from New York City actor and education advocate Cynthia Nixon. Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is waging an independent effort, and the GOP has nominated Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. There also are Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates.

Cuomo is ahead of Nixon and the others in the polls so far, and Greenberg said it makes sense not to help Nixon’s campaign by drawing attention to it.

"When the governor has a 2-to-1 lead over Cynthia Nixon, it does not work in the governor’s best political interest to be raising the issue of Cynthia Nixon," Greenberg said.

The focus on Trump also keeps attention away from other topics the governor does not like to discuss.

Several of his former associates were convicted on bribery and bid-rigging charges earlier this year. And the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan is looking into accusations that the governor’s office was involved in a pay-to-play scandal involving a health care complex known as Crystal Run in the Hudson Valley.

When Cuomo was questioned by a reporter Tuesday about the probe and whether he might return $400,000 in donations from the health care company officials, he initially replied to the question.

"If the ongoing investigation finds any fraud, then, as we’ve always done, we will return the donations," Cuomo said.

But then he criticized the reporter’s employer, Charter Communications. Zack Fink works for the New York City news channel New York 1, which is owned by Charter Communications.

Cuomo’s Public Service Commission recently began legal action to ban Charter from doing business in the state. Cuomo told the reporter that it’s Charter, operating under the name of Spectrum, that is committing a "fraud" on New York state.

"You are defrauding the people of this state," Cuomo said, looking directly at the reporter.

Cuomo’s opponents have reacted to the exchange. Nixon said the governor owes the reporter an apology, and she accused Cuomo of acting just like the man he says he’s in opposition to — Trump.

"A member of the press was verbally attacked by the governor yesterday for doing his job," Nixon said Wednesday afternoon.

Molinaro said the state inspector general should investigate to see whether Cuomo’s revocation of Charter Communications’ license is connected to his relationship with its news reporters.

Cuomo did not take questions from reporters at two events on Wednesday. Late in the day, spokesman Rich Azzopardi issued a statement saying that the governor "respects" Fink’s work, and that Cuomo wasn’t saying anything he has not already said about his grievances against the reporter’s parent company.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.