When you think Conservative Party, you think Ralph Lorigo and Billy Delmont and the influence they've wielded around here for lots of years now.
That's the way things work in New York State. A tiny band with 155,000 statewide members can set the agenda for the broader Republican Party and its more than 3 million members.
But give the Conservative Party credit for taking giant steps toward clarifying the statewide political scene. First, they gave former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer their imprimatur for the Senate race against incumbent Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then, hot and bothered by former Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro's recitation of her personal handgun list, they will anoint her for attorney general.
But their main accomplishment during a statewide conclave in suburban Albany last week may have been putting substance on the candidacies of the four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, former Secretary of State Randy Daniels and Assemblyman Pat Manning of Dutchess County.
To be sure, the candidates gave them everything they wanted to hear. Far from telling the Boston Globe in 2003 that he might someday officiate at a same-sex wedding, Weld has a different view for New York.
"I would veto any bill that legalized same-sex marriage in this state," he said. "I do favor equality of rights in terms of owning property, visitation rights, that sort of thing. I think aggregation of those is what we mean by civil unions."
That, said Chairman Mike Long, was almost good.
"He's not Mike Long yet, but he's moved on the issue," said the chairman, who has long insisted that support of gay marriage served as a non-starter with the Conservatives.
The Monday session also pointed out that whoever emerges as the Democratic opposition -- presumably Attorney General Eliot Spitzer -- will face a candidate steeped in conservatism and calls for reform (even if everyone except Weld has been part of the hierarchy for years).
Faso, who appears headed toward crucial Conservative approval, said the global economy and New York's inability to compete is the central issue. He pointed out that New York had 43 congressional seats 40 years ago but will probably drop to 27 after the next census. That means more and more people are leaving.
"The key reason for this loss and our inability to compete in this global economy is that the New York has the highest taxes," he said, decrying what he called an environment of overtaxation and over-regulation.
Ditto for Daniels, a charismatic figure blessed with more oratorical skills than any other candidate in the race. Hoping to be the party's first African-American candidate for governor, he knew exactly what button to push for this group.
"You're going to get Ronald Reagan all over again," he said, "and this time, you get Ronald Reagan in living color."
Manning, considered a long shot but with many friends in the Conservative Party, made even more points with statements like this: "I don't speak the language of liberal Democrats, and I never will. I don't like their ideas."
All of this means that in a state that continues to lose jobs and population, discussion about how to lower taxes and foster a healthier business environment will dominate. Indeed, Spitzer and potential primary opponent Tom Suozzi talk like that, too.
But Long said he believes his candidate -- and it looks like Faso -- will be a force. He says neither he nor the Republicans believe Spitzer is invulnerable.
"I think he has a glass jaw; he has a mean-spirited temper," Long said. "I think he failed to do his job in rooting out Medicaid fraud; he's a grandstander, he has no problem stepping on anyone who gets in his way to achieve the goal that he wants to achieve.
"So that's why he's vulnerable," he added, "and it's possible the right candidate can beat him."
Let the games begin.