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PATAKI SHARPENING FOCUS ON HIS FUTURE
SAYS HE IS NEARING DECISION ON '06 AND PERHAPS BEYOND

Gov. George E. Pataki says he is nearing a decision about whether to seek a fourth term in 2006 while keeping an eye on the national stage for the 2008 presidential election.

The governor said he has talked with President Bush about "future politics" and intends to be involved one way or another in the 2008 campaign.

"I want to be a part of the policy debate involved around that," Pataki said of the Republican Party's effort to choose a presidential nominee in three years.

On the immediate horizon, though, is what to do about running for governor in 2006. With Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer all but formally chosen as the official candidate of the Democratic Party for governor, Republicans have been getting more and more anxious about Pataki's political plans.

Party officials want to have enough time to mount a campaign for an alternative candidate if Pataki does not run -- something that is becoming increasingly urgent for a party that has a limited number of gubernatorial prospects on its bench.

"I don't want to leave the party hanging. I don't want to leave the people of New York hanging," Pataki said in an interview with reporters Tuesday during lunch.

The governor insisted he has not made up his mind about his political future, whose possibilities include seeking a fourth term as governor, running for the U.S. Senate in 2006, laying the groundwork for a presidential candidacy, or leaving politics and going into the private sector.

"I'm not going to let it linger to the end of the summer," Pataki said of his decision about the 2006 gubernatorial race.

The governor's political thoughts came as William F. Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, has in the last several days floated the idea of running for governor in 2006 if Pataki doesn't. However, Weld told the Associated Press on Tuesday that he would stay out of the race if former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani were to run next year instead of Pataki.

The governor sought to portray himself as filled with the required energy to run the state for another four years if he chose. Pataki called it the "greatest job there is in America."

Many political insiders see Pataki as not seeking a fourth term, in part because they think that he would rather go out as a sitting governor than risk losing to Spitzer.

A loss to Spitzer, they note, would surely end any prospects of a White House bid in 2008 -- a prospect that, given his liberal-to-moderate leanings, is already a steep uphill climb in the heavily conservative GOP.

"I'm not ruling it out -- not at all," Pataki said of a presidential run.

Republicans see Spitzer, despite his early lead in the polls, as vulnerable. Pataki agrees. "Any Democrat is a formidable candidate in the State of New York," Pataki said of the Democrats' large advantage in voter enrollment. "He obviously has won statewide before and is very well-known, so he would be a formidable challenge. Having said that, anyone can be beaten."

Asked if he sees himself as a candidate for national office, Pataki said, "I'm not thinking along those lines at this point."

He added, "Before the 2000 campaign, a great number of my advisers thought that I should run. I looked around and thought that President Bush had the vision and the leadership skills and the philosophy that would allow him to win the election and govern well, so I chose to support him."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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