Mario Cuomo, a son of Italian immigrants who became an eloquent spokesman for a generation of liberal Democrats during his three terms as governor of New York, but could not quite bring himself to run for president, has died.

Cuomo died on Thursday of natural causes due to heart failure at his home, the same day his son Andrew started his second term, according to a statement released by the governor's office. He was surrounded by his family.

The 82-year-old loomed large in New York politics as governor from 1983 through to 1994 and became nationally celebrated for his ability to weave the story of his humble upbringing with ringing calls for social justice.

But he was also known for the presidential races he stayed out of in 1988 and 1992.

Cuomo agonised so publicly over whether to run for the White House that he was dubbed "Hamlet on the Hudson."

In 1991, Cuomo left a plane idling on the tarmac at the Albany airport rather than fly to New Hampshire and jump into the battle for the presidential nomination at the last minute.

He left the door open for a lesser-known governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Cuomo's last public appearance came in November, when Andrew was re-elected governor of New York.

The frail-looking patriarch and his son raised their arms together in victory at the election-night celebration.

He did not attend Andrew speech on Thursday because he was not well, but the current governor spoke of his father.

"He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here. He is here and he is here, and his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point," he said. "So let's give him a round of applause."

Oratorical skill

Mario Cuomo's big political break came in 1982 when, as New York's lieutenant governor, he won the Democratic nomination for governor in an upset over New York Mayor Ed Koch.

He went on to beat conservative millionaire Republican Lewis Lehrman.

His reputation for eloquence was secured at the 1984 Democratic National Convention when he delivered his "Tale of Two Cities'" keynote address, in which he told of the lessons he learned as the son of a grocer in New York City.

"I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day," Cuomo told the crowd.

"I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet - a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to
speak the language - who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example."

As the nation's most famous Roman Catholic supporter of abortion rights, he argued the church should not expect him to press for outlawing abortions, given that many Catholics themselves were having them.

He repeatedly vetoed legislation that would have restored the death penalty in New York, and he closed down the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island.

He also built 30 new prisons. Under Cuomo, the state budget grew from $28bn to $62bn.

Cuomo easily won re-election for governor in 1986 and 1990.

Political defeat

In 1993, he turned down an opportunity to be nominated by Clinton for a seat on the Supreme Court, telling the new president in a letter that "by staying active in our nation's political process, I can continue to serve as a vigorous supporter of the good work you are doing for America and the world".

Nineteen months later, with voters tired of him, Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term to George Pataki, a Republican state politician who had promised to cut taxes and bring back the death penalty.

Cuomo and his wife, Matilda, had three daughters and two sons.

Andrew was New York's attorney general before becoming governor. His other son, Chris, is a CNN newscaster.

Daughter Maria married designer Kenneth Cole.

Source: Agencies