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Mood souring in Spitzer and Bruno's political minuet

When standing next to each other in public, Democratic Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno are all smiles, handshakes and jokes.

Get them apart, and the mood is souring, suggesting a quick end to the new governor's honeymoon period with the GOP-led Senate.

Bruno's simmering anger with Spitzer is fueled by the governor's bid to get a Democrat elected to what has been a Republican Senate seat on Long Island in a special election next month. The anger erupted Wednesday when the lawmaker accused Spitzer of being a hypocrite on campaign finance reform by calling for tighter donation limits while presiding over a deep-pocket fundraiser tonight in Manhattan.

The senator also lashed out at Spitzer loyalists -- whom he did not name -- for "threatening" unions and others who are lining up to support a Republican vying for the Nassau County seat left vacant after the governor persuaded Michael A.L. Balboni, a Republican, to leave the post to become his new homeland security chief.

The Long Island campaign -- between Republican Maureen O'Connell and Democrat Craig Johnson -- is being closely watched at the state Capitol.

For Spitzer, who has said the race is a referendum on his reform agenda, a loss could be an embarrassing dent in his political influence so early in his administration. For Bruno, the subject of an FBI investigation into his private business dealings, a loss could lead some GOP colleagues to rethink his leadership abilities. Republicans outnumber Democrats by three seats in the Senate.

Bruno called Spitzer's involvement in a $25,000-a-head fundraiser tonight for the Democratic Party "very inappropriate." The Democrats won't say, but the GOP insists that proceeds from the event at the Manhattan home of H. Henry Elghanayan, a real estate developer and Spitzer backer, will be steered -- or "laundered," in Bruno's view -- to help the Democrats' Senate candidate, who will join Spitzer at the exclusive gathering.

Bruno said "some people are saying it's hypocritical" for Spitzer "to be an ardent advocate" of campaign finance reform and then be the main draw for the expensive fundraiser. Bruno called it "very heavy-handed."

A week ago, Spitzer met with GOP senators behind closed doors for an hour discussing a range of issues, a meeting lawmakers said gave them a new respect for the Democrat. But this week, the tune changed, as Spitzer rolled up his sleeves to try to help the Democrats take the Long Island seat -- a move that could weaken Bruno. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by 6,000.

The Spitzer administration did not respond directly to Bruno's comments. "The governor is asking people of the district to support reform, and he's proud of that," said Christine Anderson, a Spitzer spokeswoman.

"Mr. Bruno is obviously upset because he knows his personal grip on Albany's old ways is on its last legs, and reform is on the way," said state Democratic Co-Chairman David Pollak.

Tuesday, a campaign finance report showed that the main Senate GOP campaign account Bruno controls pumped $330,000 into the GOP candidate's account on Long Island.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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