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State GOP faces challenges

Erie County Republican Chairman Bob Davis returned from Albany a few days ago to pronounce all is well with his state GOP.

County chairmen from around the state had just endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld as their man to continue their run in Albany. Ever the optimist, Davis -- first vice chairman of the state party -- reached deep into his marketing executive hat to pull out a rosy picture for what lies ahead.

"It was a great meeting," he said. "There was no significant debate, and I think we're engaged in the most open and fair process I've ever heard of."

Just for a moment, we thought he might break into a chorus of "Happy Days Are Here Again."

But these are not the happy days of an ex-Marine named Bill Powers presiding over a lock-stepped GOP. This is a time of Republican leaders like Steve Minarik of Rochester and Erie's Davis -- lame-duck Gov. George Pataki's guys -- attempting to preserve that old-time religion. But without an enforcer like a strong Pataki or a former Sen. Al D'Amato to back them up, it's fair to say that logical people could disagree with Davis' rosy assessment.

Here are a few reasons why:

* Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, fearful of losing his GOP advantage in the upper house, has emerged as the party's de facto leader. He has encouraged Sabres owner Tom Golisano to enter the governor's race as the best hope of staving off a Democratic comeback next year.

* Pataki did not designate Weld as his successor, even if the chairmen technically settled on Weld last week via a weighted vote.

* Forty-five percent of the party's weighted vote either skipped or did not vote at the Albany meeting last week. We're talking major Republican strongholds like Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties.

* Billionaire Golisano couldn't give a rip about what the Republican chairman of Otsego County or anyplace else thinks. If he runs, it will be as an outsider owing allegiance to nobody.

* The Senate candidacy of Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, a Pataki favorite, appears to be disintegrating after the chairmen politely asked her to run for attorney general instead. Pirro's problems prove especially disappointing to national Republicans, who had hoped the savvy prosecutor could rough up Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton before her expected presidential run in 2008. Now, even if Pirro stays in the race, she makes that attempt from an extremely weakened position.

Even national Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman acknowledged last week that the New York party faces its share of "challenges." "But I have no doubt the New York Republican Party is up to the challenge," he said.

That's why such high stakes surround this time for the state GOP. Minarik and Davis are performing their best with a limited bench. And Pataki is helping to prepare the party for his departure by importing a big name like Weld.

"Our party is in transition," Davis said. "We've had 12 good years under George Pataki. But now we all have the responsibility to move forward. We can sit back and do nothing or rally around the ticket for '06 -- which could be a good year."

***

Add one more name to the list of those interested in the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor next year. Dennis Mehiel, the Westchester County Democratic fund-raiser who was Carl NcCall's running mate in 2002, is expressing interest in the post again for 2006.

"I'm going to talk over the next two or three weeks to my most vigorous supporters from '02 and gauge their level of support and commitment," he said last week. "Sometime in January, I'll reach a conclusion."

Mehiel is one of the state Democratic Party's top insiders, who built a statewide reputation during his last run and as head of Sen. John Kerry's New York campaign in 2004. He joins a list that includes Dr. Jon Cohen and Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli, both of Nassau County, along with Buffalo's Leecia Eve, former counsel to Sen. Clinton.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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