ALBANY - Former Gov. George Pataki and Rep. Peter King Wednesday announced that they will back Rick Lazio for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

"I just think he's the right person at the right time with the new approach we need in Albany," Pataki said of Lazio in an interview with Newsday. "God knows in these incredibly challenging times in Albany, we need someone who will bring fresh ideas."

But a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's exploratory campaign said seven of the nine regional vice chairs of the state Republican Committee are "inclined to back" Democrat Levy over Republican Lazio.

"One of the members called him [Levy] after the meeting to tell him that," said spokeswoman Rene Babich Wednesday. Levy met with those officials at Albany's Fort Orange Club Tuesday to present his case for a candidacy on the GOP line.

Babich's claim could not be verified. "We can't speak for the vice chairs or their reaction," said Alex Carey, a spokesman for the state committee.

The Lazio campaign countered with its list of 29 county committees - representing two thirds of the party - that have endorsed him.

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"We are confident that Republicans will not support a Shelly Silver Democrat for governor," spokesman Barney Keller said, referring to the Assembly's Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

Lazio, a former congressman from Brightwaters, appeared to have secured his party's nomination, but worries about lackluster fundraising have caused some leaders to look at Levy, an enrolled Democrat.

Levy had $4 million on hand as of mid-January, compared with less than $700,000 for Lazio and more than $16 million for the presumed Democratic nominee, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Levy has not announced he is running, and has said he has "no plans" to leave the Democratic Party, a choice many Republicans, as well as Conservative chairman Michael Long, call a stumbling block.

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King (R-Seaford) Wednesday said he believed the top of the Republican ticket belonged to "a committed Republican." He said he'd promised the Lazio campaign his support in December because of his experience working with Lazio in Congress. "He's a very, very able guy," King said.

Still, King said of Levy, "If he's the nominee, I'll certainly support Steve - I have a very good relationship with Steve Levy."

Wednesday, Lazio also announced endorsements from three former congressman, including Amory Houghton and Sherry Boehlert, and the backing of another Conservative Party county leader from upstate.

No Republican has won statewide office in modern times without Conservative backing.