From the way the Republican candidates for governor practically bowed and genuflected before them Monday, you might think the leaders of the New York State Conservative Party constituted official royalty.
Not quite -- but kingmakers, for sure.
Take candidate William F. Weld, who compiled a long record as a champion of abortion and gay rights as governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997. At a statewide meeting of Conservative officials in this Albany suburb Monday, he performed a major about-face by abandoning his Massachusetts position and promising to veto any bill legalizing gay marriage. He also supported parental consent for minors seeking abortions.
"He has evidently -- clearly -- moved on the issue," State Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long said after the meeting. "I'm pleased. If we've had that kind of impact, that's good."
Weld's switch on matters of bedrock principle to the Conservative Party demonstrates just how much power the tiny band wields this election year. Weld says he supported gay marriage in Massachusetts only to comply with a court order and does not support it in New York.
Though it claims only 155,000 registered members, compared with the Republicans' 3.1 million and the Democrats' 5.3 million, the Conservative Party is acting as a powerful check on the GOP leadership's support of the left-leaning Weld.
As Weld and three other candidates stated their case Monday, it became obvious the Conservatives will get their way or run their own man on their line. Against a powerful presumed Democratic opponent like Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, even the most optimistic Republican realizes anything but unity could spell disaster.
That's why the Monday session featuring Weld, former Assembly Minority Leader John J. Faso, former Secretary of State Randy A. Daniels and Assemblyman Patrick Manning of Dutchess County involved a cacophony of conservative catch phrases.
Weld talked about individual liberty; Faso pointed to high taxes as the cause of upstate's decline; Daniels promised to modernize the state's approach to education; and Manning faulted Spitzer for failing to prosecute Medicaid fraud aggressively.
And everyone invoked Ronald Reagan.
While not endorsing Faso but acknowledging him as the front-runner, Long said Weld has a "high wall" to climb to gain his nod. The underlying message, underscored last week by Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo and his endorsement of Faso, was that Republicans and Conservatives should unite behind the former Kinderhook assemblyman and member of the Buffalo financial control board.
"It's evident the Conservative Party is alive and well," Long said, almost purring behind a Cheshire cat grin.
It all reflects the ferocity with which this year's Republican candidates are pursuing the Conservative nod. They know that no Republican has won statewide office without Conservative backing since 1974. And they also know that with Democrat Spitzer leading in polls, money and organization, this year's GOP challenger needs to avoid forcing the minor party to run its own candidate -- a move Long said the party can do if necessary but doesn't want to.
"If we could coalesce behind a candidate who will maybe move our principles and make life better for all New Yorkers," he said, "the [Republican] leadership will make a clear distinction and make a good decision."
Long's ability to rein in left-leaning Republicans is exactly what Daniel Mahoney had in mind when he and others founded the party in 1962 as a check on then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Longtime students of minor party politics like former Erie County and New York State Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Crangle say the Conservative tail wagging the statewide GOP dog is inherently unfair. He said while the vast majority of other states require candidates appearing on party lines to be registered in that party, New York does not.
"Talk about bossism?" Crangle said. "There's not a better personification of it than with these minor parties."
But because so many officeholders are beholden to tiny parties like the Conservative, Independence and Working Families, he sees no change short of a constitutional convention.
Long views it differently, arguing his members don't join the Conservative Party to get a political job -- though his daughter, Eileen, once worked for Gov. George E. Pataki -- but to express faith in principle.
"I don't think we're the tail wagging the dog," he said. "What we are is 155,000 people that really believe in something."
While the Conservative Party traditionally has exerted disproportionate power over its Republican partner, its muscle in 2006 appears even stronger. With Pataki's impending retirement and no major figure like him or former Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato guiding the GOP, there so far has been little cohesion between the two parties as in years past.
Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis continues to tout Weld as a "proven winner and true conservative" who should prove acceptable to Long and company.
"They ought to take a look at Bill Weld's record as governor of Massachusetts," he said. "It's pretty conservative, especially on economic issues."
But Davis admits he would be concerned about the possibility of a split ticket against a strong and well-financed Democrat like Spitzer.
"Do we want to elect Eliot Spitzer?" he said. "I don't think any Conservative or any Republican would say yes to that question. It's imperative for the two parties to get together on this."
Long said he expects the party to name its candidate in about a month.