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State GOP in turmoil after its chairman backs a Democrat

The state Republican Party erupted in turmoil Friday when its chairman stood on the steps of the Capitol in Albany and endorsed Democrat Steve Levy -- the Suffolk county executive -- for governor.

The move by state GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox drew immediate rebukes from the gubernatorial campaign of Rick Lazio as well as Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski, who called it "wrongheaded."

"I don't endorse this, and there are no circumstances under which I will," Domagalski said.

Still, a whole new element has now been officially added to the state political scene as Cox reaches out to Levy, a popular Long Islander who also explored running in the Democratic primary. But Levy said Friday he will become a Republican, even though his registration will not technically take effect until Jan. 1, leaving him ineligible to vote in his own primary election in September.

"I am proud that the people I have spoken with in the last two months -- the leaders who stand with me here today -- have recognized the severity of the crisis we face, and have recognized that my long record of fiscal conservatism represents New York's best hope," Levy said. "And that is why I am joining the Republican Party -- and together we will bring fiscal restraint to our government in Albany."

Levy, who met with the media and political leaders in Buffalo on Thursday, also reiterated his plans to declare a fiscal emergency that would force creation of a control board to monitor spending and borrowing.

"It would incorporate all the reforms and spending controls talked about for a decade but swept under the rug," he told The Buffalo News earlier this week. "It's a chance to change the culture of Albany with one omnibus bill."

Levy's move occurred on the eve of this afternoon's Conservative Party Executive Committee meeting in Brooklyn, in which the party was thought as recently as last week to be ready to endorse Lazio, the former Long Island congressman and 2000 senatorial candidate.

Now, Levy's forces, as well as Republican Carl P. Paladino of Buffalo, who is slated to announce for governor on April 5, are mounting an effort to persuade state Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long to delay the vote.

Since most political observers say opposition to presumed Democratic nominee Andrew M. Cuomo would be doomed if the Republican and Conservative parties nominated different candidates, the pressure was mounting on Long to delay the vote.

But those same observers say Lazio will get a major dose of momentum should he emerge from today's meeting with the backing of Conservative Party leaders.

Levy's candidacy is now launched with more than $4 million in his campaign fund, while Lazio has failed to generate any substantial gains in fundraising. While Lazio claims a majority of Republican state committee members, many party sources are offering only lukewarm support.

Domagalski, who met with Levy in Buffalo on Thursday as a "courtesy," has yet to back anyone for governor. But he made it clear Friday it will not be Levy or any other Democrat.

"I will do everything I can to work against this wrong-headed decision," Domagalski said. "I'm very disappointed in the state party and its inability to understand the needs of the voters."

Domagalski did not, however, call for Cox's resignation.

The development also handed Paladino new ammunition in his effort to delay today's Conservative vote. Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo was slated to fly to New York today to attend the Executive Committee meeting and ask for a breather in light of the new candidacies of Levy and Paladino.

He said Erie, Suffolk and Nassau counties control 31 percent of the weighted vote and could be influential in seeking a delay. Sources close to Lazio, however, said they were "extremely confident" they had the votes to push through a Lazio endorsement today.


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