When Steve Levy began his bid for county executive in 2003, almost no one took him seriously.
On the wrong side of 17-1 votes in the county legislature and later no favorite as an assemblyman to Speaker Sheldon Silver, he was considered a policy wonk who went his own way.
But when Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer did a poll, showing Levy blew away all comers, the party leader signed on and Levy won two terms - the last unopposed.
So it was déjà vu all over again last week when Levy, largely unknown across the state, did far better than expected in a Siena Research Institute poll. He made a respectable showing, 46-31 against unpopular Gov. David A. Paterson and outpolled former fellow Suffolk lawmaker Rick Lazio and Erie County Executive Chris Collins, both Republicans.
An ebullient Levy told a business group last week he "got a boot" out of the results for being "within striking distance" of a sitting governor. But to understand Levy's prospects, the poll also showed Levy is unknown by 71 percent of state voters. Experts say the showing against the governor was more likely an anti-Paterson vote than any positive sentiment for Levy.
In a three-way matchup surveying Democrats, Levy got just 6 percent while Paterson got 21 percent and unannounced gubernatorial contender Attorney General Andrew Cuomo swamped both with 59 percent. "If the county executive gets into it, he's got a long way to go," said Siena pollster Steve Greenberg.
While the poll showed him beating Lazio and Collins in separate head-to-head general election matchups, that was with Levy listed as a Democrat, and the survey was weighted to reflect the heavy Democratic voter majority. Levy's prospects in a GOP primary are unclear.
But Michael Dawidziak, a Levy campaign adviser, said Levy's profile is just the kind needed to tap public anger that led to Scott Brown's U.S. Senate upset in Massachusetts. "Steve's name recognition north of the Bronx is zero," Dawidziak said. "If you compared resumes and described a county executive in a county larger than 13 states who has taken on unions and kept taxes down . . . he'd end up number one."
Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant, said Levy's best chance is with Republicans because public unions will block him in the Democratic ranks.
"Cox is welcoming him with open arms because he'll do anything to increase discussions of a party given up for dead," he said. "If they are smart, they will run Steve Levy for senator."
A major question is whether Levy can muster $20 million for a statewide run. Levy's coffers stand at $4.1 million, ahead of Lazio with $647,000, Collins, who has $1 million, and even Paterson with nearly $3 million. All are far behind Cuomo's $16 million.
But Levy has accumulated his funds over six years with no competitive election in between. At that rate, it would take Levy nearly 18 years to match what Cuomo has now. However, Dawidziak said Levy plans a fundraising blitz in coming weeks and a Feb. 22 event to boost coffers.
Levy also has to weigh whether to use those campaign funds to get better known with no guarantee he'll be on a statewide ticket. Also, downsizing his war chest would remove Levy's best defense to a future county foe.
And if Levy changes parties, there are other obstacles. First, a switch would not take effect until after Election Day. As a nonparty member, Republican election experts say Levy would need authorization from 50 percent of the party convention to run on the GOP primary ballot - a Republican only needs 25 percent. "It's easy to join the church, but a lot harder to say you want be a cardinal," said a Lazio backer who asked not to be identified.
"He has a message the public wants to hear," Dawidziak said, "The question is whether either party will see the wisdom of picking a guy who has already captured the middle."