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Challenger shakes up Democrats Suozzi to announce gubernatorial bid today

On paper, many Democrats admit privately, Thomas R. Suozzi is an ideal candidate for governor.

He is confident, good-looking, personable, Catholic, Italian ancestry, a liberal on some issues and a social moderate on others, such as abortion.

Suozzi already has shown he can win tough races appealing to both Democrats and Republicans.

As Nassau County executive, he has overseen the fiscal restoration of the voter-rich Long Island county. Willing to take on members of his own party, he has been a loud voice for reforming state government and a leader in efforts to reduce the impact of the state's soaring Medicaid program on local property taxes.

There is just one problem: Democrats say they already have a candidate in State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer.

So this afternoon when Suozzi announces his bid to run for governor, party leaders, top union officials and senior officeholders will be missing from the stage. That kind of support is critical to a candidate's success, especially in a primary race like the one Suozzi is now setting up against Spitzer.

"The Suozzi thing is a distraction. In the end, he'll probably end up regretting doing it," said Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. "He's picking the wrong battle at the wrong time."

Allies say Suozzi will raise cash to take his message directly to Democratic voters and ignore the usual reliance on local party bosses and unions. They also note that both Mario M. Cuomo and Hugh L. Carey defeated the party leaders' choice in primaries when they first ran for governor.

"Not only don't we expect it, we don't particularly care," Jay Jacobs, Suozzi's key political adviser and chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party, said of such support. He lashed out at "party hacks" and special interests in Albany, such as public employee unions, that have a vested interest in seeing Suozzi fail.

"The very people who are currently in power in the establishment are afraid of Tom Suozzi and are desperately trying to stop him from running because they think he could win and that, in all likelihood, will spell the end to their power and their money spigot," Jacobs said.

To be sure, Suozzi enters the race the clear underdog.

Spitzer, the state's two-term attorney general, has the name recognition, the support of top Democrats, and the backing or potential backing of top unions, women's groups and minority leaders -- key bases in a Democratic primary in this state.

Not that Democratic insiders don't have some concerns about Spitzer. Some wish he were a bit more folksy and less lawyerly. Even allies say he comes off as the smartest-person-in-the-room.

>Previous primary upsets

Spitzer runs such a closed-door campaign that many party leaders were out of the loop last month when he tapped Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson of Manhattan as his running mate, angering some black party leaders who supported Leecia R. Eve, daughter of former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve.

But Democratic leaders say they have not had such a strong gubernatorial candidate as Spitzer in a long time. His reputation for taking on Wall Street abuses, insurance scandals and consumer fraud is unparalleled among state attorneys general. He also has money -- $19 million on hand as of last month, compared with $5 million for Suozzi.

But Suozzi allies see opportunities, saying Spitzer has almost nowhere to go but down in the polls once he gets an opponent. One recent poll showed him with a commanding 72 percent to 8 percent lead over Suozzi.

Suozzi's allies point to the State Democratic Party's history of anointed candidates losing in primaries. Edward I. Koch and Howard J. Samuels both won the party's endorsement in conventions. But Koch lost to Cuomo in the 1982 primary, and Samuels lost to Carey in 1974.

"To take it for granted, as some supporters of Eliot do, is a big mistake and not helpful to Eliot, because then you're not going to give it your best," said Koch, who backs Spitzer.

Still, Koch notes the comparison between those two earlier primary races and this year's primary is not precise.

Cuomo and Carey had big union backing in their bids, which Suozzi will not have.

"I know Tom Suozzi, and I like him. I think he has a very good record, a lot of strengths," Koch said. "But I believe Eliot will win."

>Ethnic, religious factors

Denis Hughes, president of the state AFL-CIO, said Suozzi is "a smart guy" who will "be a good candidate," but worries about the effect of a divisive primary battle.

Still, the leader of a union that has helped candidates win elections over the years says overcoming Spitzer's lead will be extremely hard for Suozzi.

"It's hard to figure out where his votes would come from in a primary," Hughes said of Suozzi.

As always in a Democratic primary, ethnic and religious backgrounds will come into play in a race that pits Spitzer, who is Jewish, against Suozzi, an Italian-American Catholic.

About 75 percent of votes in Democratic primaries are cast in New York City and its suburbs, according to Jerry Skurnik, a partner at Prime New York, a consulting firm. About 7 percent of voters have Italian heritages, 6 percent Irish, 20 percent Jewish, 15 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black, he said.

Suozzi declined an interview request.

Ryan Toohey, a Spitzer spokesman, said the campaign will comment when Suozzi announces.

But Spitzer's allies are already gearing up for a fight, preparing to talk about such things as tax increases by Suozzi, the amount of state money required to help repair Nassau County and Suozzi's coziness with Wall Street executives who battled with Spitzer.

They include Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone, whom Spitzer is suing for his role in a New York Stock Exchange compensation package. Langone has vowed to help defeat Spitzer and already has helped Suozzi raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Jacobs, the Suozzi adviser, said Spitzer has "chosen to malign" Langone and Suozzi.

"It's McCarthyesque at best," he said.

Jacobs said Langone asks nothing of state government, unlike Spitzer's campaign donors, such as public employee unions.

If Spitzer becomes governor, "they are going to be standing at the governor mansion's door with their hand out and their list of expected rewards," he said.


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