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Already an outcast among Republican Party leaders, Lt. Gov. Ross today announced she will switch her allegiance to the Democratic Party.

"The Republican Party has hung out a sign: 'Women need not apply,' " Lt. Gov. Ross said in a statement. Her move was anticipated for months, ever since Gov. Pataki said earlier this year he was dumping her from his re-election ticket next year.

The governor's chief spokeswoman, Zenia Mucha, who personally battled with Lt. Gov. Ross over the years, said:

"It's sad to watch Betsy self-destruct in public. Clearly, this is a woman desperately searching for a spotlight."

Cut out from decision-making from the start, Lt. Gov. Ross has had a number of visible run-ins with Pataki, his aides and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., Pataki's patron.

In her statement this morning, she railed against GOP efforts to keep rivals from getting on the primary ballot against Bob Dole in New York in 1996 as well as State Senate efforts that have killed proposals to require insurers to cover certain experimental treatments for seriously ill people.

"This decision comes after three years of soul-searching," she said, adding, "The Democratic Party is the place for working families and children."

Democratic Party officials, some of whom are nervous about what Lt. Gov. Ross might have in mind for her political future, said her move was an embarrassment for the Republicans.

"Unlike Al D'Amato and George Pataki, whose actions continue to alienate the women of this state, the Democratic Party has built itself on a tradition of inclusion, and today we welcome (her) into the party with open arms," Democratic Party Chairwoman Judith Hope said of the lieutenant governor.

She said that over the coming months, Lt. Gov. Ross "needs to roll up her sleeves and prove herself to the Democrats who spent their lives building up the party."

State GOP Chairman William Powers did not return calls for comment.

"I don't think it's a loss for the party. I think she's been a disappointment," said Robert Davis, Erie County Republican Party chairman. "As a party, we need to be unified, and she was just not a team player, and sometimes when you're not on the team, you need to be traded."

Lt. Gov. Ross did not say what office she intends to seek, but with a crowded field of Democrats already eyeing runs at Pataki and D'Amato, party leaders clearly want her to set her sights lower. Sources say she might be willing to run for a Suffolk County congressional seat.

Her departure from the Republicans, whose leaders plucked her from obscurity in 1994 as Pataki's running mate, removes a tricky political obstacle for Pataki and D'Amato. She had not ruled out running in a primary, especially against D'Amato, in 1998.

Republicans sought to dismiss her defection, which comes a few months after a Long Island assemblywoman also left the party.

"Who cares?" said Jack Cookfair, a Syracuse GOP consultant. "Everyone I talked to in the party is wall-to-wall pleased."

But Cookfair added that by changing affiliation, "that takes her out of the primaries, which is clearly a plus for us."

Democrat Hank Morris, a Manhattan political consultant who works for U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer, who is eyeing a run against D'Amato, said her change will hurt Republicans.

"Women are critical swing voters. Everybody knows the most important people in the 1996 presidential election were 'soccer moms.' And this is significant because the Republican Party, which is suspect to begin with on how they treat women and where they are on women's issues, can't handle a woman who knows her own mind," Morris said.

As for her future, he said, "Anything is possible in the politics of the 1990s, but we have some excellent candidates for Senate and governor, so I think if she were thinking a little bit smaller that would be wiser."

The head of a Republican women's group wasn't as thrilled as some of her GOP colleagues to see Lt. Gov. Ross go.

"I'm not absolutely shocked, but I'm disappointed that we're losing her as a Republican because she was such a wonderful spokesperson for the pro-choice movement," said Lynn Grefe, executive director of the New York State Republican Family Committee.

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