President Barack Obama called Gov. David Paterson "a wonderful man" Monday, a day after apparently throwing him into a fight for his political career, but saved the heartiest greeting for Paterson's chief rival for the job: state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
The president was in the Albany area to deliver economic remarks at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. The visit closely followed weekend reports that Washington Democrats, some saying they were acting on behalf of Obama, urged Paterson to drop out of the race.
Such a move would pave the way for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to win the Democratic nomination.
Paterson was first in line to greet Obama when he arrived, and the two had a brief exchange that appeared cordial after the president stepped off Air Force One.
They shook hands, and Obama gave Paterson a half-embrace and said something to the governor, who listened for a moment then said something back. Reporters were too far from the exchange to hear what was said.
'A wonderful man'
The embattled governor was subdued Monday before the economic address, at which Obama heaped praise on Paterson.
"A wonderful man, the governor of the great state of New York, David Paterson, is in the house," he said before delivering his address at the college in Troy, across the Hudson River from New York's capital.
Obama then introduced the attorney general as a close ally and joked with the hard-charging, headline-grabbing Cuomo, calling him "your shy and retiring attorney general."
"Andrew's doing great work enforcing the laws that need to be enforced," Obama said as he cast a warm smile toward Cuomo and the two made eye contact. Obama didn't look at Paterson in his introduction.
"I think that you would have to be pretty dense not to get the message," said Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at New York City's Baruch College, who viewed video of the event afterward.
Paterson was lieutenant governor under Democrat Eliot Spitzer and ascended in March 2008 after Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal. His popularity has plunged and the state's economic situation has sharply deteriorated.
With a 20 percent approval rating in a recent poll, some Democrats fear Paterson will hurt the ticket in 2010 — when Democrats are nervous about midterm losses in the House and Senate. Paterson has refused to step aside.
Spokesman: Obama not interfering
The president's aides insisted Monday that Obama wasn't interfering with New York politics. Before Obama landed, spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't answer directly when asked whether the president ordered that word be sent to Paterson that he does not want him to seek re-election.
"Well, look, I think everybody understands the tough jobs that every elected official has right now in addressing many of the problems that we have, and I think people are aware of the tough situation that the governor of New York is in," Gibbs told reporters aboard the president's plane. "And I wouldn't add a lot to what you've read, except this is a decision that he's going to make."
Gibbs said it wasn't unusual for the White House to be involved in state races. Asked whether there were any risks to such involvement, Gibbs answered: "The hazards of the job."
The president has already dipped into New York politics, throwing his support to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a former congresswoman whom Paterson appointed to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton. A call from Obama was enough to take one possible primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, out of Gillibrand's path. Democrats need to hold every Senate seat next year to keep a filibuster-proof margin in the chamber.
Obama also endorsed Scott Murphy during a close special election to fill Gillibrand's upstate New York seat and lent his image to campaign mailers. Vice President Joe Biden did advertising spots for Murphy, who eventually won.
In the case of Paterson, it would be the first time Obama had taken action to remove a Democrat in power.
Pataki to Obama: Stay out
Former Republican Gov. George Pataki, speaking for the national GOP, said Obama shouldn't get involved.
"I just think it's wrong," Pataki said. "To weaken and undermine the governor beyond the weakness that already exists ... to me just doesn't serve the interests of the state, doesn't serve the interests of our country."
Pataki, who didn't rule out a run for Senate next year, said people need to make up their own minds about running, and that decisions should be based on policy, not polling.
Also Monday, Paterson — the state's first black governor — got support from a local NAACP branch, and the Rev. Al Sharpton warned against allowing "reactionary forces" to return to power.
A Long Island branch of the NAACP says it and other groups are planning a rally to support Paterson, and to urge Democrats to let him deal with the fiscal crisis, not politics.