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A campaign run out of the spotlight; In a race few are aware, 3 relative unknowns compete for a chance to unseat Gillibrand

Three downstate Republicans are racing toward the finish line of Tuesday's U.S. Senate primary campaign, crisscrossing the state in a blitz of activity for the right to challenge incumbent Democrat Kirsten E. Gillibrand in November.

And hardly anybody is noticing.

A rare June primary, combined with three unknowns competing on overwhelmingly Democratic turf, is producing a contest well out of the spotlight. But that has not deterred Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, Rep. Bob Turner of Queens and Manhattan attorney Wendy Long from furiously competing for votes of the few Republicans actually expected to trek to the polls on Tuesday.

All are seen as potential winners in a low-turnout primary, and all are convinced they can cause trouble for Gillibrand this fall.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said the situation reminds him of 2010, when several Republicans were vying to take on Gillibrand and Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

"They were all fighting for headlines with the governor's race and other politics going on," he said, noting how the presidential contest is dominating the 2012 campaign season.

"And this being a June primary, it's a first-time deal that is not traditional," he added. "So we don't know exactly what the turnout will be."

The contest so far has taken a few strange turns. Some of its sharpest exchanges took place earlier this month over -- of all things -- Turner's appearance with a group of Brooklyn public schoolchildren singing "God Bless the USA." The song had been banned by the school's principal for a graduation ceremony.

That prompted several exchanges over the appropriateness of including the students in what was called a campaign stunt and generated some of the biggest news coverage of the campaign so far.

Still, a serious campaign is under way.

In a phone interview, Turner said 40 years of business experience in the television industry provides him with perspective needed for a New York senator.

"I'm not a politician, but I know a few things," he said. "I look at the politics here and it's all created by dumb politics and dumb laws. And they're all fixable."

Turner has demonstrated he knows something about winning elections too, snaring the seat of former Rep. Anthony Wiener following his highly public resignation in 2011. His victory in heavily Democratic sections of Brooklyn and Queens stunned the nation, and served as a major bragging point for the national GOP.

If he can tap the same enthusiasm that carried him even in Democratic New York City last year -- especially buoyed by support from top figures like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- he argues he can win statewide too.

"There is only one candidate -- me -- who is able to deliver in the downstate area and allow the level-headed people of upstate to carry this," he said. "That's the only way this is going to happen."

Turner's strong support of Israel as a "democracy in a sea of dictatorships" also provides an appeal to the state's influential Jewish voting bloc. And he has lots to say about a state and national economy that he believes can be significantly stimulated by tax incentives for factories, equipment, new products and research.

Maragos, meanwhile, enters the race backed by the powerful GOP organizations of Nassau and Suffolk counties -- home of the state's largest concentration of Republicans. After a long career in financial services, he helped address the Nassau County fiscal mess that resulted in imposition of a financial control board.

He says his opponents lack the public and private sector credentials needed to win in a Democratic state, pointing to his own experience as a successful Greek immigrant as part of "the American dream." "It's going to take an outstanding candidate with an outstanding resume who is going to contrast with Gillibrand," he said.

Maragos said he has learned from his upstate forays that the former manufacturing center cannot compete in a high-tax environment. But he also promised to champion federal support for a high-speed rail program linking Buffalo with New York City, pointing to such investments as proper for the federal government.

And in New York City, he promises to protect the financial sector that powers the state's economy against over-regulation.

Long, a Dartmouth College graduate who served on the staff of two U.S. senators and as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has emerged as the favorite of a majority of upstate Republican organizations -- including in Erie, Niagara, Monroe and Onondaga counties. On Friday she received the backing of former Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco.

She earned that support, she said, as the "only true, thoroughly authentic conservative Reagan Republican in the race."

As an example, Long criticized Turner for indicating earlier this week he believes the federal debt ceiling should be raised.

"I said we should be like Nancy Reagan: Just say no," she said. "What we really need to do is cut federal spending."

Long also enjoys an advantage as the nominee of the Conservative Party, and no Republican has won statewide since 1974 without the minor line.

She said she ultimately will provide the best GOP antidote to Democratic claims of a "war on women."

"That's just a phony issue," she said. "I just can clear that away and talk about issues women really care about -- like jobs."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com