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State Democrats paying more attention to Paladino

Carl P. Paladino has yet to qualify for any ballot in his quest to become governor of New York.

And the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows him far behind front runner Andrew M. Cuomo, the attorney general and Democratic candidate.

But slowly and without any official presence in the campaign, Paladino is becoming a factor. The state Democratic Party, which so far has handled much of Cuomo's political attack, is taking more notice of the Buffalo attorney and developer.

Over the past week, the party has issued several broadsides aimed at the phantom Republican, who has 1,800 volunteers and paid workers circulating designating petitions for the GOP ballot. While Republican rival Rick Lazio now brandishes the party's leaders and expects an easier time raising campaign funds, the Democrats are for the first time taking notice of both Lazio and Paladino.

Charlie King, executive director of the state Democratic Party, called Paladino "Two-Face" for threatening to take a "baseball bat" to Albany ways while benefiting from about $85 million worth of state leases.

The party cited Paladino's claims that he is worth $150 million and will spend $10 million on his gubernatorial campaign, and challenged him to disclose his personal finances.

New York Democrats criticized national Republicans for accepting Paladino money at last week's major fundraising event at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society featuring four U.S. senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

They pointed out that many Republicans failed to embrace Paladino's candidacy because of revelations that he had forwarded a series of racist and pornographic e-mails to friends over the past few years.

"Considering that the New York State GOP shunned Carl Paladino because of his offensive e-mails, it's rather surprising that important senators like Mitch McConnell are embracing him by taking his money," said June O'Neill, chairwoman of party's Executive Committee.

So far none of the attention or even Paladino's extensive television advertising has helped his poll standings. The Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday shows Cuomo leading 59 to 23 percent over Paladino, compared to 60 to 24 percent in April. The survey also shows Lazio topping Paladino in a Republican primary 46 to 17 percent, with 28 percent undecided.

But the attention is not lost at Paladino headquarters in Ellicott Square.

"I think he's getting under the skin of Andrew Cuomo," said Paladino spokesman Michael R. Caputo. "Every day that the Democrats make attacks against us is a good day for Carl Paladino.

"He's got answers, knows the numbers and is starting to understand where the bodies are buried," he added. "He makes them all nervous."

Democratic insiders privately say that with his history of offensive e-mails and his far reaching contracts with state agencies, Paladino continues to generate controversy.

They acknowledge he figures to be a player in the Republican primary if -- as expected -- he files enough signatures on the designating petitions to qualify for the September ballot. Some believe he is the one Republican that can energize the party's right wing most apt to vote in a primary.

They also point out that, at the moment anyway, he has far more money than his Republican opponent. In addition, they say he forces Lazio to pay attention, too.

"We will go after anyone that tries to misrepresent themselves and Democrats, and Paladino has done that repeatedly," said King, the Democratic Party's executive director.

But Caputo counters that the new attention mirrors Democratic respect for Paladino.

"Our opinion is that the Cuomo team thinks they would get past Rick Lazio in a walk, but would have the most difficult time with Carl Paladino," he said.

Caputo said that Paladino will become an official presence in the campaign when the petitions are filed in July. He said volunteer organizations like Primary Challenge are active in collecting the signatures, and are helping the campaign save significant dollars.

Caputo said the campaign now expects to spend $500,000 to qualify for the GOP ballot and later for an independent, "tea party"-related line.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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