Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
For Suffolk's last-minute Republican comptroller candidate John M. Kennedy Jr., it seemed to be the perfect picture.
When Kennedy, minority leader of the Suffolk County Legislature, saw Brookhaven Conservative co-leader Ken Auerbach at a Republican golf outing last week, Kennedy's aide snapped a photo of the two men together. Kennedy's campaign posted the picture online, even though the Conservative Party balked at giving the lawmaker its ballot line in November.
Auerbach responded with a Facebook post of his own:
"While I do like and respect John Kennedy personally, I am not endorsing him in the race for Suffolk County Comptroller, but am supporting Jim Gaughran," Kennedy's Democratic opponent.
Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said he was surprised by Auerbach's reaction, and said he did not try to mislead.
"There was no overt effort to countermand anything," he said, noting that he had campaigned at 15 to 20 events in the past week and had "pictures with many people, including Rob Astorino," the GOP candidate for governor.
Kennedy entered the comptroller's race only last month, when Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle dropped out. While Conservatives authorized LaValle to run on their ballot line, the minor party did not name Kennedy as his replacement, leaving the line blank. That party line is crucial to Republicans, typically providing them with 10 percent to 15 percent of their vote.
Kennedy said the Conservatives did not have time to act because the GOP did not name him as candidate until 45 minutes before the deadline for naming a replacement. "The clock ran out," Kennedy said.
Experts say that while not having the Conservative line will cost votes, it would have been worse if the party had fielded a candidate of its own to siphon away support.
"Leaving it blank will cost votes but how much is up for debate," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works mainly for the GOP. "But some may question why he doesn't have the Conservative line."
Kennedy downplayed the impact, saying he's had Conservative backing in the past and passes the minor party's "litmus test" on issues such as opposition to abortion.
"Conservative voters are well-informed and are aghast at this Democratic administration's mountain of debt," Kennedy said, referring to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. "They don't want to see a rubber stamp."
Gaughran said he already has shown he can cut payroll at the Suffolk County Water Authority, where he serves as chairman. He also noted that the comptroller doesn't set policy -- so issues such as abortion don't apply.
Gaughran said he's aggressively seeking Conservative support and has formed a "Conservatives for Gaughran" committee.
At least one other top Conservative had nice things to say about Gaughran last week. Huntington Conservative chairman Frank Tinari, while not endorsing Gaughran, said, "Jim's a good candidate and has done a great job at the water authority." Tinari is working with Democrats on a joint town judicial ticket.
Kennedy's late entry also has given Gaughran a head start with labor endorsements despite Kennedy's strong union ties through his late father, Jack Kennedy, who was head of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council.
Desmond Ryan, a Republican business lobbyist, said Kennedy faces "an uphill fight," although President Barack Obama's sagging poll numbers and questions about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's abrupt shutdown of the Moreland Commission on public corruption could help even the field for Republicans.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, called the race competitive but said Kennedy's late start, and the expense and logistics of running a countywide campaign, make the contest difficult.
"I don't think he's a dead man walking, but I'd say he's a legislator limping," Schaffer said.
Kennedy discounted the obstacles.
"Some of the realities are harsh, but I've been given an opportunity to make my case," he said.