The state Republican Party, hoping to ride a wave of voter discontent back to power, was thrown into turmoil Thursday as Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said he would challenge Rick Lazio for governor.

Levy, a registered Democrat who won election in 2007 on both party lines, planned to switch his registration and formally announce his bid beside state Chairman Ed Cox on Friday.

But Lazio, a former congressman from Long Island who has racked up a who’s who of endorsements from leading Republicans, insisted Thursday he would win the GOP nod, as well as the all-important backing of the Conservative Party, which has been a kingmaker in Republican politics for 30 years.

“The people of New York are going to look for somebody that they can depend on, not somebody who puts their finger up to the wind and decides which way things are going,” Lazio said. “I’m going to run on my record.”

Levy, 50, who has been working to line up support from GOP county leaders for weeks in preparation for the party’s convention in June, did not respond to messages left Thursday.

Both Levy and Lazio have presented themselves as fiscal conservatives who rein in spending in Albany.

Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long said Levy’s announcement seemed timed to him to delay his party’s endorsement meeting, set for Saturday.

“I think it’s meant to put a finger in the eye of the Conservative Party,” Long said Thursday. “The few people Levy has support from will ask that we hold off, let’s see how this all pans out. I’m not going to do that.”

Lazio, 52, stung by criticism that his campaign has failed to catch fire and not raised enough money, released a list of his finance committee, which includes Wall Street heavyweights, and his campaign co-chairs: former Gov. George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani. Lazio last ran for office in 2000, when he was defeated in the U.S. Senate race by Hillary Clinton.

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Whoever wins the nomination faces an uphill battle against Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is likely to be the consensus choice among Democrats.

Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at CUNY, said Republicans have so far failed to capitalize on the anti-incumbent sentiment voters have expressed clearly in local races.

“Steve Levy might be appealing to many Republicans simply because he could present himself as someone who transcends party,” said Sherrill. “Lazio has been out of office for 10 years and even though he seems to be a more assured candidate than he was in 2000, he may be a little bit slow on his feet.”

But Republican political consultant Mike Edelman, who is not affiliated with either camp, predicted Lazio would pull it out in the end.
“Is he a billionaire? No. Does he have the charisma of a Nelson Rockefeller? No,” Edelman said. “But he can relate to the average person, which I think people may be ready for right now.”