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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Levy knows the game all too well

Suffolk County executive Steve Levy walks with his

Suffolk County executive Steve Levy walks with his wife, Colleen, before announcing his Republican candidacy for New York State governor outside the Capital building in Albany. (March 19, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

Early in his first county executive race, Steve Levy played a political shell game to make himself appear a far more formidable fundraiser than he really was.

Levy, then a state lawmaker, his mother, Marie, and his aunt Charlotte personally loaned his Assembly campaign fund $86,000. Levy then transferred the money to his county executive race, making it look as if he had money left over from Albany fundraising.

The loans were a major boost for the then-lightly regarded Levy. They primed the pump for him to raise more money and eventually allowed him to repay all the loans, untouched after he won.

The 2003 episode, totally legal, is illustrative in light of Levy's splashy entry into the GOP governor's race Friday, and it displays his uncanny knack to spin electoral gold from straw.

With great fanfare, Levy announced he's switching parties, even though the move will not take effect until after Election Day and he can't vote if there's a GOP primary. Levy was surrounded by GOP county chairs from around the state at the Friday announcement, including Suffolk's own GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, who dumped hometown GOP favorite Rick Lazio for Levy.

LaValle concedes he can deliver only eight of 10 Suffolk town GOP leaders for Levy.

And Levy's GOP support so far does not add up to the 51 percent he needs at the state GOP convention by early June to be the party's pick, forcing Lazio to challenge him in a primary.

"It's a Hail Mary pass," said Islip Supervisor Philip Nolan. "He had to make the move to even be in the game."

But Eric Kopp, a former GOP chief deputy county executive, said no one should underestimate Levy. "If anyone said two years ago Steve Levy might run for governor against Andrew Cuomo no one would have believed it," he said. "I think . . . he's exactly where he wants to be."

Friday's entire show was aimed at persuading the state Conservative Party executive committee, which met Saturday in Brooklyn, to put off its decision to endorse Lazio. However, the party officials voted to recommend Lazio as a Conservative gubernatorial candidate.

Despite the party recommendation, Levy supporters say they still have two months to convince both Republican and Conservative officials that Levy and his budget-cutting, tough-on-unions approach is the best to capitalize on public anger.

Levy's gubernatorial prospects will now likely hinge on who raises the most money and performs better in polls. Levy has $4.1 million raised over six years, Lazio $647,000 in the bank, and Cuomo $16 million.

The worst scenario some Republicans paint is that Levy and Lazio end up in a bitter GOP primary, squandering resources and cutting each other up. "It would be a circular firing squad - we'd all be shooting ourselves," said a glum GOP official who declined to be identified.

While some Republicans say Levy may have a greater chance of winning governor, there's also a greater downside given his party switch, hard-line immigration stance and his incendiary miscues. Within minutes of Levy's switch, Lazio aides put out wiretap transcripts of Levy talking to former campaign adviser Stephen Baranello, convicted of bribe taking.

But LaValle said Levy and his detailed plans to fix the state's fiscal mess are the GOP's best shot. "Cuomo's going to kowtow to special interests with the same old, same old," he said. "Levy is going to resonate like a rocket. . . . This is Steve Levy's time."

Yet former Suffolk Legis. Michael O'Donohoe, a Conservative, fears Levy is too high-risk to lead the ticket in a year when Republicans need to recapture the State Senate. "This is going to be a solid Republican year. Why have a Democrat to head your ticket?" he asked.

Levy, he added, will galvanize the minority and union vote: "They dislike Steve intensely. They'll make him the David Duke of New York."

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