Steve Labate, 42, of Deer Park, was a lieutenant colonel...

Steve Labate, 42, of Deer Park, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. (Feb. 6, 2007) Credit: Newsday/Michael E. Ach

Sean Hannity's best friend John Gomez may have won the nod of GOP leaders to run against Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, but tea party contender and Iraq vet Steve Labate is sounding very much like a primary candidate.

"We, the people, are going to decide . . . the nominee," said Labate, vowing a fight on a campaign Web site. "I will pursue this to the very end."

Late last week, Labate was still out campaigning at the Ronald Reagan Conservative Club in East Northport. And only days after the party leaders made their choice, he put up a cyber plea for contributions called "Operation Money Bomb."

"Send a warrior to Washington," it said, warning, "You are about to lose your choice of candidate for the 2010 election." The pitch netted $13,000 in a matter of days.

Labate, 42, of Deer Park, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, did two stints in the Middle East and works as a retirement counselor, is not saying he will wage a primary battle. But he added he will decide shortly based on what his tea party supporters and grassroots Republicans want.

"I'm not going to quit because the going gets tough," he said. "The furthest thing from my mind is dropping out."

Gomez, an ex-local radio talk show host, dazzled both Republicans and Conservative officials by bringing Hannity, a national radio and TV conservative commentator, to screenings. However, party officials say, it was Gomez's ability to communicate, not his connections, that gave him the edge.

And when Hannity's role angered tea party people, the pundit personally phoned Steve Flanagan, head of Conservative Society for Action, and Labate to apologize for intruding. Now Labate has urged backers to direct their angst at those "who made the decision," not Hannity.

GOP leaders' reaction so far has been muted because they don't want to alienate tea party people and hope Labate, one of 11 GOP contenders, may still back down after cooling off. "He came very close, and not getting it was an emotional thing for him," said Frank Tantone, Islip GOP leader.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman, also was low-key. "We hope cooler heads will prevail, and everybody will understand that we have to work together to beat Steve Israel, and a primary may not be productive," he said. "If it's really about the mission and not about the man, we believe we can find common ground."

The usually glib Gomez spoke haltingly about Labate. "I can't imagine it will be good for the race," he said, "but he's got every right to do what he wants."

In the meantime, Gomez, 47, of Bayport, said he spent four hours Friday with fundraising advisers plotting how they will raise the $2 million to $3 million needed for the campaign.

While Scott Brown used the "Money Bomb"-type strategy to raise huge sums in his special election upset in Massachusetts, party insiders doubt it will work here because there are now too many tea party groups and candidates vying for money. They also say the GOP has the edge in a primary with its network of workers to get out the vote.

However, tea party organizer Flanagan estimated his group has 4,200 across Long Island, 1,600 to 1,700 of whom live in the 2nd Congressional District, and said his troops are far more motivated than most party people.

Labate said he has "no doubt" his message will appeal widely to donors.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said the elbowing among incensed GOP contenders means nothing because Israel has brought jobs and funding to the district.

"They seem like the not-ready-for-prime-time players," he said. "Angry rhetoric only takes you so far. People want to hear solutions and see results."

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