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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Primary could end GOP's internal battle

Three weeks ago, New York Republicans were thinking the state's presidential primary could be the focus of national attention for the first time in ages.

Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul would be in the Empire State, trying to score a victory that would stem the momentum of the GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney -- and maybe give their campaigns a second wind.

Turns out, the primary Tuesday could still be important. But for a different reason.

It could mark, for all practical purposes, the end of the line for those three stragglers. More importantly, party leaders hope, it could mark the end of the long-running internal GOP battle that some think has hurt Republicans' chances of ousting President Barack Obama.

"We've had nothing but eight to 10 months, maybe 12, of nothing but Republicans shooting at each other," State Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R-Fayette), said Thursday at the annual GOP dinner at the Sheraton in midtown Manhattan. "Now, we can work to achieve a common objective."

Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was running second to Romney, was supposed to speak at the GOP event. But he dropped out of the race earlier this month.

Gingrich, running third, became the news of the Manhattan event. He told supporters he was staying in the race. But he also talked about facing "mathematical reality." And, at the tail end of his speech, he said if he's not the nominee, he would "work all out" to support Romney -- which brought a smile to many Republicans' faces.

"The last word of Newt's speech was the most important: unity," said Anthony Casale, chief of staff for the Republican state committee.

Four other states also hold primaries Tuesday: Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. Romney can't technically lock up the nomination that day, but for practical purposes he can.

"Mathematically? No," Casale said. "But politically? Yes."

Most leading New York Republicans support Romney, including state party chairman Ed Cox. After Gingrich left, Cox said that when the band strikes up "Hail to the Chief" in January, "it will be president Mitt Romney walking onto the stage."

Still, Gingrich supporters aren't ready to quit -- or to heartily embrace Romney.

"It's not that they hate Romney," Queens attorney Joe Kasper, a Gingrich supporter who was at the dinner, said of like-minded party activists. "They're just not thrilled with him. People say he's got a better shot at swing voters. I don't buy that."

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