Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

Under a banner trumpeting "Levy for New York," emcee Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chair, paused last week while praising his hometown county executive at a $500-a-head fundraiser.

"Steve, you still are a Democrat, right?" Schaffer said at the event, which added $200,000 to Levy's $4.1-million coffer.

But Schaffer's question took on new meaning Friday after Gov. David A. Paterson withdrew from the gubernatorial race. Paterson's exit all but erases Levy's prospects for a Democratic primary. Always a long shot, Levy's only chance was a crowded primary, not a mano-a-mano contest against Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Now Levy's hope is that Rick Lazio, the GOP front-runner, falls on his face. "As long as David was in the race, Lazio had the face of being the loyal opposition," said Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan. "Now, scrutiny will shift more to Lazio and whether he can win against Cuomo and his $16 million.

"Some people say . . . Rick's cow has run dry," he added.

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However, Barney Keller, Lazio's spokesman, laughed when asked of Levy's chances. "In America, people are free to do what they want," he said. He added Lazio is fundraising at a brisk pace, but gave no numbers.

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Levy backers paint Lazio, who reported only $647,000 in campaign cash last month and took a $1.3-million Wall Street bonus, as a replay of Pierre Rinfret, the 1990 GOP gubernatorial loser who got only 21 percent of the vote. It is the last thing the GOP wants while trying to retake the State Senate.

Levy is also trolling for minor-party support. He is seeking a meeting with Independence Party founder Thomas Golisano, and some Conservative Party sources say state chairman Michael Long is getting heat within his own ranks over Lazio for fear the party will not draw enough votes to regain ballot Row C. (Conservatives lost it to the Independence Party in the last gubernatorial election and now are on Row D.) Long said the party is "leaning to backing Lazio," but said, "it's a long way between now and June," referring to party conventions.

Levy forecloses nothing, including an independent run. Some insiders say he has little chance for the GOP or Conservative line. But Levy says it is too late to legally change parties in time for Election Day.

He is packaging himself as the only one who has proved he can make tough decisions to rescue the state from the abyss. "This is not the time to elect someone because it's their turn," said Levy in a veiled swipe at Lazio and Cuomo. "I'm talking specifics because I'm the only one not afraid of ticking off special interests."

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Those specifics include calling for declaring a state fiscal emergency, impounding state agency funds, barring public unions from step increases after a contract expires, and ending binding arbitration for police.

Critics say Levy's proposals are DOA in Albany and his prospects are pipe dreams. Lazio has locked up 67 percent of state GOP chairs and his Conservative supporters include Tom Long, the state leader's brother. Lazio also does not have to file his next financial report until July, six weeks after the GOP convention.

But Levy is creating a buzz. Mallory Factor, a co-founder of the Monday Meeting, a right-leaning city coalition, said Levy "stole the show" at a Conservative conclave last month: "The guy's a star and a new face."

He has also enlisted new donors such as Gale Brophy, owner of 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, who says she'll do Levy fundraisers. "I like that he's squeaky clean," she said.

State Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay said no one should underestimate Levy. "I have tremendous respect for his political instincts," he said. But he noted a down side to losing to Cuomo and remaining county executive: "It's not the best way to start off a relationship with a new governor."