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Republican Lazio makes formal entry as contender

The campaign for governor of New York is under way, more than a year before voters choose their next chief executive. And Tuesday, the signs were everywhere:

* Former Rep. Rick Lazio formally declared his Republican candidacy.

* A new poll shows continued erosion of confidence in incumbent Democrat David A. Paterson.

* Democratic Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo basks in the afterglow of his virtual anointment as the next governor by President Obama in Troy on Monday.

* And today, new State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox arrives in Buffalo to begin preparing his party for the battle ahead.

Observers call the situation "unparalleled." They point to Paterson's tenuous position, the president's signals of approval toward Cuomo and the potential of a GOP revival as the outward signs of a very unsettled situation.

"You can't compare this to anything political in the history of New York State -- or at least in my lifetime," Joseph F. Crangle, former Erie County and state Democratic chairman, said Tuesday.

While Lazio has been unofficially campaigning for the post for months, his announcement Tuesday in Albany, followed by a Buffalo appearance this afternoon makes him -- for the moment at least -- the face of the Republican opposition. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and County Executive Chris Collins are also weighing a run for governor, while Cuomo appears ready to answer a Democratic call that Obama seemed to make inevitable.

For Lazio, another statewide run would follow his failed challenge to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Senate in 2000. He has been a Wall Street financial adviser since then.

"State government overspends, overtaxes and overreaches," Lazio said in Albany. "It is polarized, unresponsive and unaccountable. It has destroyed rather than created jobs. It caters to selfish special interests and not the citizens.

"New York's government is about the past, and we need a governor who relentlessly focuses on the future."

Lazio, 51, a Long Islander, pointed to his experience in Congress and the private sector as credentials for the job he now seeks. In the House of Representatives, he said, he worked for welfare reform, a strong defense, laws that overhauled public housing to increase efficiency and laws creating health care options for the disabled.

The central theme of his campaign, he said, will be to create a state government that lives within its means.

"To reverse this exodus we need meaningful tax reform," he said. "Let's begin with a property tax cap -- a hard cap where tax increases could not exceed the rate of inflation."

Lazio also called for a major investment in repairing the state's aging roads and bridges, special attention to the state's education system and returning "integrity" to government.

"To restore this faith, we must start from the beginning -- all over again," he said. "We must call a Constitutional Convention and rewrite our state's Constitution."

And as he has since the summer Senate coup catapulted state government into crisis, Lazio reiterated his controversial plan to combine the Senate and Assembly into one house.

"In short, we need vast and sweeping change to our current concept of government," he said. "It's like fixing a roof that's leaking. When you fix it 20 times but it still leaks, at some point you figure out that you have to replace the roof."

While Giuliani promises to make up his mind about running by November, his mere presence as a potential candidate continues to dominate the field.

But Lazio promised Tuesday he will be "in it 'til the end."

And Collins, while boosting his visibility around the state in case Giuliani does not run, still made the case for the former mayor.

"Rudy Giuliani will be a great governor for this state because I know he will do for New York State what he did for New York City," Collins said in a statement. "Rick Lazio's announcement makes it critical that Mayor Giuliani make a decision about his candidacy soon. The stakes are too high for New York's hardworking families."

Crangle observed that the unsettled situation allows the embattled Republicans to harbor some hope of resurrecting their languid political fortunes.

"The Democrats have to get their act together," he said. "Until they do, they are just enhancing Republican chances."

All of this played against the backdrop of a new gubernatorial poll issued by the Siena Research Institute.

The poll found Paterson's favorable/unfavorable rating at 20 percent to 50 percent, down from 32 percent to 55 percent last month. Just 18 percent of voters favorably rated his job performance, compared with 80 percent who view his handling of the job as negative. Only 14 percent say that at this point they are prepared to elect him governor next year; 71 percent prefer someone else.

"I still take the governor at his word that he is planning on running for a full term for governor at this point, but he certainly has another option now as he considers what to do going forward," said Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena poll.

News Albany Reporter Tom Precious contributed to this report.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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