Early one morning last September, while shaking hands with commuters at the Freeport train station, Republican Ed Mangano realized his long-shot candidacy had a real chance to win against incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi.

"It confirmed the anger that was out there," recalled Mangano, who heard that feeling again at stops in Wantagh and Mineola. "Everyone explained that they had adjusted their lifestyles downwards because of the economy and they didn't believe government was working."

For Suozzi, however, the realization that the race was tight didn't come, he says, until around 9 p.m. on Election Day. That's when he made his traditional visit to the voting booths near his Glen Cove home and discovered that the low voter turnout meant Democrats weren't bothering to show up.

"I became concerned that a lot of [Democratic] voters stayed home because they thought we were way ahead in the polls," recalled Suozzi, first elected in 2001 and seeking a third term. "Most people thought it was going to be an easy race."

Instead, the Suozzi-Mangano contest - now headed for a recount with only a 237-vote difference between the candidates - may prove to be one of the closest in Long Island history. The more than 6,000 absentee ballots that likely will decide the contest are being collected until Tuesday, with the final result not certified until Nov. 27. Ultimately, the race may wind up in the courts, reminiscent of the Florida recount dispute during the Bush-Gore presidential election.

"This could make Florida in 2000 look like a day at the beach," said Bruce Nyman, Suozzi's director for public policy and communication.

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While both sides await the final tally, a review of this uber-close race - based on interviews with the two candidates and those around them - reveals several critical factors that may have made an important difference:

Unspent campaign money

When the polls closed Tuesday, Suozzi still had about $2 million in his campaign coffers, which could have been used when Mangano's shoe-string campaign gained significant ground in the campaign's final days. Records filed 11 days before the election show Suozzi not only had $2.4 million, but that he was collecting more money than he was spending.

For his part, Suozzi, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and has been mentioned as a possible future statewide candidate, said he spent more than $1 million during the campaign, including the "maximum buy on TV and radio."

By comparison, Mangano estimates he raised only about $500,000. But the GOP challenger spent more money than he took in during his final push.

Fighting property taxes

The issue - once Suozzi's greatest strength - became his Achilles' heel. Both sides agree no issue mattered more than voters' concerns about property taxes in a recession-plagued economy. For years, Suozzi championed efforts to cut property taxes and was appointed last year by Gov. David A. Paterson to find concrete ways to lower real estate tax bills around the state. When asked about the issue, Suozzi often pointed out that about 65 percent of property tax bills are driven by school costs, over which he had no control.

So Mangano managed to claim this issue as his own, tapping into pent-up anger felt by financially squeezed Nassau residents. "I think of myself as a leader of the property tax revolt issue, and it turns out I may be a victim of it," Suozzi said, noting the irony.

Low voter turnout

The overall 27 percent voter turnout in Nassau was much lower than the 38 percent when Suozzi was first elected in 2001. Though more Democrats than Republicans are registered in Nassau - a reversal that occurred during Suozzi's tenure - GOP voters this year appeared to be more motivated to go to the polls. Voting patterns show that turnout in traditional GOP areas was 32 percent, while it was 22 percent in traditionally Democratic neighborhoods .

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Timing the attacks and counter-attacks

After a quiet start, the race heated up last month when questions were raised about Mangano's family printing business and its history of large tax liens. Mangano, a lawyer, claimed he was no longer connected to the printing firm, but he refused to make his personal income tax records available for scrutiny as Suozzi did. The Republican challenger complained bitterly about Suozzi's camp. "It's a tactic that losers use - to blame and attack, rather than explain his accomplishments and talk about solutions," Mangano said in a post-election interview.

But others wondered whether Suozzi had been too low-key in the race, and why he didn't hammer Mangano with questions about his personal finances during public forums. Asked why he didn't bring it up at a live News 12 debate six days before the election, Suozzi said the opportunity didn't present itself.

GOP organizational ability

Mangano benefitted greatly from Republican regulars working in local municipal jobs and special districts who made sure to get out the vote. Despite eight years as county executive, Suozzi didn't seem to have a comparable organization, even in places like Manhasset that previously voted for him.

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After two terms in office, Suozzi was familiar to voters but not beloved. In a Newsday/News 12/Sienna Research Institute poll taken six weeks ago, less than half of respondents, 47 percent, held a favorable view of him; 31 percent had an "unfavorable" view of him. By comparison, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy had a 22 percent negative rating.

But perhaps even more significantly, 78 percent said they didn't know or had no opinion about Ed Mangano.

Being a relative unknown didn't seem to hurt the seven-term county legislator from Bethpage with considerably less flash than the bright and ambitious Suozzi. Indeed, in a year when angry voters were looking to get rid of long-time incumbents, it may have been a blessing.

With Celeste Hadrick, Elizabeth Moore and William Murphy