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State GOP chief's nod to Democrat for governor is a puzzler

Republicans across New York State are scratching their heads this week, wondering out loud whether some grand plan is hidden up the sleeve of new State GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox.

Does his Friday backing of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy -- a Democrat -- for governor have legs?

Does it make any sense now that crucial Conservative Party support rests with former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio? Especially since no Republican has won statewide office without the Conservatives since 1974?

Does the Levy candidacy center around the $4 million in his campaign account, while Lazio reported only $637,000 on hand in January?

And can Cox count on obtaining the more than 50 percent support of the state committee needed for Democrat Levy to run on the GOP line?

So far, New York Republicans have no answers -- with some expressing real fears about the fate of statewide candidates in this election year.

"I don't think it even deserves a chance," said Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski. "I think it's a bad idea. Ed Cox's decision to stand with a liberal Democrat is, in my view, the worst thing a party can do."

Several influential Republicans said Cox is marching blindly into his effort, with one calling the Levy candidacy "really out there."

But others like Cattaraugus County Republican Chairwoman Paula Snyder are open to the idea, especially since she is uncommitted and notes that Lazio has failed to generate enthusiasm or sizable campaign cash.

"The chairman has clearly introduced another candidate for consideration," she said. "I'm looking at that, and looking at Rick's somewhat tepid campaign."

Domagalski has yet to endorse anyone for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, even after Lazio flew to Buffalo on Sunday to confer with the Erie County chairman. And some question whether Domagalski's opposition will amount to much, since he may step aside as chairman before the Republican State Convention in May if he decides to challenge State Sen. Dale M. Volker of Depew in the GOP primary.

And Lazio is fighting back, meeting today with several Southern Tier chairmen to shore up support among the rural leaders some say have been ignored of late. Snyder said she appreciates Lazio's visit to Olean today, but also plans to confer with another gubernatorial hopeful in the Republican mix, Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino, in the next few days.

Still, Cox's Friday backing of Levy -- rebuked the next day by Lazio's Conservative endorsement -- is not resonating with voters. A Siena College poll released Monday shows that Republicans favor Lazio over Levy by 45 percent to 16 percent.

"After we informed those Republican voters that Lazio is a former Republican congressman and Levy is the current Democratic Suffolk County executive and asked their choice again," said Siena Research Institute spokesman Steven Greenberg, "Lazio expanded his lead to 60 to 19 percent."

Levy spokeswoman Rene Babich called the poll results "skewed" because it was conducted while Levy was still a Democrat. She said Levy will fare better against the presumed Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

"Steve has been a candidate for less than a week and already his numbers are on par with Mr. Lazio's for the general election," she said. "Once statewide voters get to know Steve Levy, they will defect to him as rapidly as the Republican leadership has over the last several weeks."

Cox did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday, but many observers believe the strategy appears to involve convincing enough Republican leaders to line up behind their state chairman and Levy. They say that Levy's conservative reputation will appeal to New York voters tired of fiscal calamity and that the county executive's record on eastern Long Island shows that he has already attracted bipartisan backing -- enough to garner 96 percent of the vote in his last election.

Lazio's slow start leads some observers to believe that Cox may yet convince enough party leaders to join in his roll of the dice. "It will be trench warfare for Levy to build support," said one knowledgeable Republican. "And he'll try for Conservative support, too."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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