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REPUBLICANS OPTIMISTIC ON ALBANY

On the crest of a hill along downtown Albany's Eagle Street, a Republican named George Pataki is about to complete his 10th year in a big house known as the Governor's Mansion.

He also keeps a nice office down the street and around the corner on the second floor of the Capitol. It's all part of the perks that make being governor of New York a pretty good deal.

So is presiding over a $101 billion budget and doling out big jobs to hundreds of patronage appointees. For the last decade, and for at least two years to come, it's good to be a Republican in Albany.

But the state GOP convened there a few days ago to select Steve Minarik of Rochester as its new chairman amid gathering concerns over just how long the good times will roll. Though no Republicans will acknowledge it, there are fears over what lies ahead.

That's because the party lost seats in the Senate and Assembly (despite Jack Quinn III's impressive win in Hamburg), got creamed in the U.S. Senate race against Democrat Chuck Schumer, and once again watched as Democrats so firmly entrenched the state in the blue column that a New York presidential campaign never occurred.

But a few legislative seats are not the problem. Neither was a Schumer loss bound to happen, even if the GOP resurrected George Washington.

The real concern is what lies ahead for that big house on Eagle Street. While Pataki would prove a formidable force should he seek a fourth term, only mega-pol Nelson Rockefeller has done the four-peat thing in modern times. Beyond former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP has few stars in its bullpen to relieve Pataki against a heavy hitter like Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, now on deck as the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

But none of this worries Minarik. A hard-charging leader who has socked Monroe County solidly into the GOP column despite a Democratic enrollment advantage, the new chairman is optimistic.

"I don't buy that," he said of concerns over a dearth of candidates. "We've got Rudy Giuliani, maybe even Colin Powell. I see John Sweeney (Saratoga County congressman) as very legitimate, or Tom Reynolds (Clarence congressman) as a statewide candidate. I like Sen. Mike Balboni from Long Island. I like your county executive, Joel Giambra, or our county executive, Maggie Brooks. I think we have a real good bench."

Still, there is no question Minarik is a Pataki guy. That's why he was chosen. And that's why he's bullish on the governor shooting for a fourth term.

"The governor is my candidate for re-election," he said. "If he chooses to run, he'll be successful."

And if Pataki goes elsewhere or maybe even takes on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2006 (as some Clinton insiders anticipate), the new chairman thinks a new face can prove just as successful as the Peekskill unknown whom everyone discounted against the mighty Mario Cuomo in 1994.

"If I didn't think we had a chance, I wouldn't be sitting here," Minarik said.

He's not dreaming. Though his detractors call him abrasive, Minarik is seen as a solid leader who gets results. And despite an enrollment disadvantage of 2.3 million voters, Republicans can -- and do -- win in New York State. Just ask Pataki or Alfonse D'Amato or Dennis Vacco.

Now all Minarik has to do is keep Pataki on board, or find another like him. That big house on Eagle Street is still awfully comfortable.

Sen. Chuck Schumer's decision a few days ago to pass on a run for governor in '06 not only clears the way for Spitzer to coast to the Democratic nomination, it also whips up the scramble to succeed him as attorney general.

Two of the many AG wannabes boosting their Democratic efforts last week included Assemblyman Mike Gianaris of Queens and former lieutenant governor hopeful Charlie King of Rockland County.

"The focus now gets more intense as it becomes obvious there will be a vacancy, and '06 preparations are beginning," Gianaris said. "I think I'll be well positioned to be part of that."

King, meanwhile, listed several new names supporting his AG bid.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com