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Conservatives flex their muscles

Ralph Lorigo has been quietly practicing law out of his West Seneca office for more than three decades, but it's as chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party that he wields major political clout in this town and around the state.

And while he can get sidetracked trying to influence Democrats -- as in the apparently unsuccessful attempt to run Byron Brown on his line for mayor -- Lorigo and his longtime running mate Billy Delmont can always flex powerful muscles over in Republican Land.

So when Lorigo spoke up last week and endorsed Manhattan attorney Ed Cox for the Republican nomination to face Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton next year, it was more than a minor party figure expressing his views. Lorigo's endorsement of the conservative Cox over the left-leaning Jeanine Pirro -- Westchester district attorney and favorite of the GOP hierarchy -- demonstrates how he and his tiny band can hamstring the mighty machine that has run the state Republican Party since former Sen. Al D'Amato first kick-started it back in 1980.

And since the Conservatives have sustained the party built by D'Amato and Gov. George Pataki over the years, it was only natural that Lorigo would meet with Pirro at the request of Erie County Republican Chairman Bob Davis.

"Bob was very high on her, and she's all the good things they say she is," Lorigo said. "But when you read where she stands on the issues, I don't see how the Conservatives could endorse her.

"Cox is the cleaner, better, more articulate candidate who is good on our issues," he added. "I think he'd be our better candidate for a lot of reasons."

Lorigo's departure from top GOP figures like Davis highlights the state Republican Party's dilemma as it prepares to adjust to life after Pataki. When the party produces "moderate" Republicans that can win in New York, Conservatives then rein them in -- as they have since 1962 when they formed to counter Nelson Rockefeller's lefty ways.

The same dance takes place on the gubernatorial stage. The hierarchy is pushing former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, while Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno is now praising Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano -- the three-time Independence candidate pondering a switch to the GOP. In the meantime, former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso is making his own noises about running.

Bruno is concerned about losing his fragile majority in the Senate. He asks how the more liberal Weld shores up his base when Golisano has the resources to spread a conservative message on three ballot lines.

That's where Lorigo's Conservatives re-enter the picture.

"If Weld is the candidate," Lorigo said, "they're just encouraging the Conservatives to go out on their own."

That's why Buffalo will prove an interesting political nexus when Weld highlights Davis' annual black-tie fund-raiser on Oct. 21. Without Lorigo and company in attendance that night, it might not make much difference how many dollars Davis raises. If Conservatives go their own way in two high-profile contests next year against two well-heeled and favored Democrats, it could signal the breakdown of a Republican machine that's hummed quite nicely for an awful lot of years.

* * *

On the local Democratic front, interest continues in the onslaught of mailings attacking Chairman Len Lenihan and endorsed candidates like Legislator Lynn Marinelli just before Primary Day. The literature carries no disclaimer identifying its sponsor, but observers familiar with the pieces estimate the bill came to at least $30,000. Now Lenihan says he wants to get to the bottom of it.

"Because of the ferocity of the attacks on Lynn Marinelli and a number of these candidates, there's a lot of anger out there," he said. "I think there will be some formalized investigation. This time, it may not be overlooked."


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