Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks as supporters gather in Manhattan after...

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks as supporters gather in Manhattan after the polls close on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's decision last week to ban a contentious form of natural gas drilling burnished his liberal record among Democrats from Manhattan to Hollywood and gave a boost to his profile for a potential run for president in 2016, experts say.

Cuomo made himself the only prominent Democrat thought to be eyeing the party nomination who has flatly rejected hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is opposed by environmentalists as a threat to public health. His decision also soothed some angry liberal leaders in New York who have influence with progressive groups nationwide.

The move made national headlines and set Cuomo apart from President Barack Obama -- who has embraced drilling -- and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the early front-runner of unannounced 2016 candidates -- who riled some liberals by saying fracking can be done safely.

"Absolutely, it does distinguish him," said Robert Shapiro, a political-science professor at Columbia University. "It comes at a time when there is a more liberal movement afoot in the Democratic Party and this could be his way of balancing his own ideological positions by moving in a liberal direction."

He was referring to Cuomo's first term, which included liberal social policies such as legalizing gay marriage and a key gun-control law, but also fiscal conservatism, such as a cap on school spending increases that has rankled progressive groups.

A centrist record can win a general election, but to get there a candidate must first be able to win over the more liberal members of the party who dominate presidential primary voting, experts say.

Poll: View on fracking flips

Cuomo's decision on fracking, in which water and chemicals are pumped under high pressure to force natural gas from the ground, came after a Pew Research poll last month showed a flip in the broader public's view nationwide of the process. The poll found 47 percent of Americans of all parties opposed fracking, while 41 percent favored it. In March 2013, 48 percent of Americans supported fracking, while 38 percent were against it.

Also last month, Cuomo won re-election in a low-turnout vote. Many Democrats said the turnout was a result of Cuomo's failure to motivate his liberal base after a surprisingly strong primary challenge from Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who also had challenged Cuomo for the endorsement of the liberal Working Families Party. Teachout opposed fracking.

"I think this decision could make this governor a national environmental hero," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has opposed fracking.

Potential downside to ban

But the decision also has a potential disadvantage.

"The downside is if unemployment becomes a concern and gas prices go up," said Marist College poll director Lee Miringoff. "Folks will argue that this decision worked counter to economic development. . . . Obviously it's a risk politically, but one he had to take."

"The impact of this missed opportunity will be long-lasting," said Heather C. Briccetti, a Cuomo ally and president of the state Business Council, which supports fracking and had endorsed Cuomo twice.

Cuomo last week dismissed any role of politics in the decision as "conspiracy theories."

Four years ago, the governor continued a moratorium on fracking and sent the politically divisive issue to his health and environmental conservation commissioners for more study. The results announced last week found the existing data on the safety of the process weak and said long-term studies were needed before the drilling can be deemed safe.

"I relied on the experts," Cuomo said Thursday. "I believe we can have jobs and they can be in healthy communities and we don't have to run the risk of hurting your children or creating health hazards to create jobs. That's a false choice."

After four years of being dogged by protesting environmentalists, Cuomo was cheered for his decision.

"I think it sent shock waves," singer-songwriter and musician Natalie Merchant, an anti-fracking activist, said in an interview. "I think Andrew Cuomo will definitely be seen in a different light after this."

She and other entertainers, including actor Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono, who leads Artists Against Fracking, have made several trips to Albany and other sites in New York to demonstrate against fracking and to disrupt Cuomo's events. The anti-fracking "Gasland," an Academy Award-nominated movie, was shown at rallies and parties of "fracktivists" statewide throughout his term.

Cuomo also forced some liberal leaders in New York who bitterly opposed fracking and the governor's inaction for four years to send a nuanced message to supporters. They praised Cuomo's decision as a victory for activists, while trying to minimize praise for him.

"Five years ago, hydrofracking seemed inevitable," said Teachout and her running mate, law professor Tim Wu. "This moment shows how the power of a passionate, determined, educated public can change history."

After the decision, Ruffalo thanked Cuomo for "heroic and bold leadership" and said his action should be heeded nationwide.

Other environmentalists also couched the decision in a national context.

"Governor Cuomo has set himself apart as a national political leader who stands up for people, and not for the interests of the dirty fuel lobby," said Michael Brune, national executive director of the Sierra Club environmental group.

Still quiet on 2016 plans

Cuomo won't answer reporters' questions about any interest in running for president. But in October, he released his book, "All Things Possible," which is the kind of mix of political memoir and philosophy that many presidential candidates use to create a buzz and test the presidential waters.

Clinton is the clear favorite among Democrats -- if she runs for president -- and Cuomo so far isn't registering on lists of other potential candidates, which include Vice President Joseph Biden and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"Even in the unlikely event that Clinton doesn't run, Cuomo would have trouble competing with other potential candidates, especially [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren, who would have stronger appeal to liberal activists and donors, as well as to women who make up close to 60 percent of Democratic primary voters," said political science professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University in Atlanta.

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