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Spitzer troubles give GOP hope

There are reports filtering from 315 State St. in Albany over the past few days of various optical phenomena unobserved at that historic address since George Pataki bolted town back on Dec. 31.

Some reported a "ray of hope" shining through the headquarters of the New York State Republican Party. Others saw a "flicker of activity" at a place sitting virtually dark and unoccupied since Democrat Eliot Spitzer steamrolled into Albany.

But the steam blew out of Spitzer's steamroller last week amid a scathing report from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo blaming Spitzer staffers for conspiring with the State Police to smear Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno -- the governor's chief Republican nemesis.

Suddenly, there's hope at 315 State.

"We're better off than we were two weeks ago," State GOP Chairman Joe Mondello said. "Hopefully, this will motivate our senators and our people to work that much harder to show the Democrats are not the panacea here."

To be fair, Mondello is not exactly giddy over the events of the last week. Many Republicans, especially upstaters, say they don't want Spitzer to fail in his promise to address the faltering economy. Still, the word "disappointment" enters lots of conversations across New York this week.

"What has happened is bad for the business as a whole," Mondello said. "People are not crazy about politicians in general, and a situation like this makes them even less enchanted."

Still, Mondello knows he must act at a time when his New York GOP is fighting for its survival. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2.3 million voters, and they control every aspect of state government except the Senate -- where the Republicans hold a slim majority. Any thought of Republican success will now be measured by the party's ability to retain the Senate -- the leader of which was targeted by Spitzer's aides.

Mondello, who has been criticized in many GOP quarters for ineffectiveness, seems to be stirring to life. He says Spitzer plays by "two sets of rules," and labels his campaign against Bruno "disgusting and disingenuous."

The chairman is now expected by the Republican faithful to take advantage of the opportunity handed to them. This year, he must win local elections like Chris Collins' efforts to become Erie County executive. He has to replenish campaign coffers, and he must prepare for an epic battle in 2008 to hold -- and possibly increase the numbers -- in the Senate.

Mondello suddenly has a platform, and some people are at least paying attention. He says it's dangerous to have all of New York's government concentrated in one party. It's worse, he adds, when that one party is directed by a "bully."

"If we sell that, I think we hold on," he said. "And hopefully, we increase the numbers."

Questions remain about the long time leader of the Nassau County GOP. He rarely ventures from his Long Island base. Bruno anointed him chairman after Pataki ignored him for years, and his party has fallen to historic depths since the swashbuckling days of former Chairman Bill Powers and former Sen. Al D'Amato.

Is he up to the task?

"Not without being spoon fed, because he's been a disappointment," said one former statewide leader. "You need a colonel to lead us into battle versus someone sitting at a desk as field marshal.

"All of it rests with what Joe Bruno thinks," the source added. "Does Mondello rise to the occasion, or does someone else fill the vacuum?"

Mondello has had his problems, but so would anyone stumbling around a dark and deserted headquarters. But now Spitzer has provided the ray of hope, and desperate Republicans hope it helps Mondello find his way.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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