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Conservative Party leaders back Lazio for governor

A day after being rejected by his own party's chairman, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio secured the all-important backing Saturday from State Conservative Party leaders.

The Conservative Party Executive Committee met Saturday in Brooklyn, where it recommended the former Long Island congressman as the party's candidate for governor.

The Lazio endorsement still needs to be ratified at the Conservative Party convention this spring, said Michael R. Long, State Conservative Party chairman.

"He's got a lot of support among the leaders of the party," Long said by phone after the meeting. "He's been friends of the party for a long time, and we believe he is the best suited, the most consistent on where he stands on issues, and we were very proud to nominate him today. He's going to be the Conservative Party nominee."

The huge boost in momentum for the Lazio campaign was a slap at the Republican Party, which erupted in turmoil Friday, when, standing on the steps of the Capitol in Albany, Edward F. Cox, the state party chairman, endorsed Steve Levy, Suffolk County executive whose switch from the Democratic to Republican Party will not take effect until Jan. 1.

In an overwhelmingly Democratic state, winning the governorship without the Conservative Party's endorsement is considered nearly impossible for a Republican.

Lazio told The Buffalo News late Saturday that the backing of Conservative leaders came with "no vacillation or equivocation," and was a "validation" of his conservative record through the years. "It was an important and bold statement," Lazio said. "There is no question about my commitment to the core fiscal issues, and this is support from teammates who share those principles and values."

At the Conservatives' meeting, however, party leaders from Erie and Suffolk counties tried to persuade Long to delay the vote to provide an opportunity to interview Levy and Carl P. Paladino, a Republican businessman from Buffalo.

But the motion was defeated.

"We had a great debate," Long said. "It must have went about two hours."

"I'm disappointed about what happened today," Ralph C. Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, said Saturday. "In my opinion, my party needed to wait and interview all candidates. Many, many of the counties have not seen Carl Paladino."

Paladino is expected to make his formal announcement for governor April 5, and Lorigo plans to take him throughout the state to meet Conservative leaders in hopes Paladino can still win the party's nomination at the convention.

"Some of the people who didn't get their way are not happy, but that's politics," Long said. "It's clear a majority of the party rallied around Rick Lazio, and I'm happy with the outcome."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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