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Long IslandPolitics

Battle for GOP governor candidate heats up

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy as he delivers

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy as he delivers his seventh State of the County address. (February 3, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Ken Sawchuk

Suffolk Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat exploring a run for governor, was to meet Tuesday in Albany with Republican leaders, sources said Saturday - though Rick Lazio already has lined up endorsements from most GOP county bosses.

Meanwhile, in the Conservative Party, whose ballot line is considered crucial to Republican candidates, state chairman Michael Long said he is getting ready to back Lazio. But the party's Long Island leaders are promoting a Levy candidacy.

In a meeting Saturday, local Conservative leaders tried to persuade Levy to change parties and announce his candidacy immediately, which he declined to do, sources said. Lazio and Levy are expected at a Conservative fundraiser in Albany Monday.

Anger spread Friday among Lazio supporters as word leaked out that the Republican State Committee, under new chairman Ed Cox, was setting up separate meetings between its leaders and Levy and Lazio. A local Lazio backer who declined to be identified said: "This is an attempt by Cox to spin Lazio out and get Republicans to go with Levy."

Lazio spokesman Barney Keller said Levy will not "have a spot on our statewide ticket. . . . It's ridiculous and an insult to all those who believe in responsible, efficient and effective government."

Levy on Friday declined to criticize Lazio but said his own county executive experience made him uniquely qualified to be governor. Levy's campaign did not respond to calls seeking comment Saturday.

Nine days ago, Gov. David A. Paterson quit the race - clearing the way for Democrats to nominate Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who outpolls Lazio and whose $16-million war chest far eclipsed Lazio's $647,000 as of mid-January.

Levy's backers say his name on the ballot - which would require authorization from party officials - could lift Republicans.

But a prominent Lazio backer questioned Cox's motive, noting his son Christopher is running for Congress in Suffolk. County GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, who backs the younger Cox, supports his party's scheduling separate meetings with Lazio and Levy.

Sources said Long prefers Republican Randy Altschuler for the House seat.

LaValle was the first GOP leader to endorse Lazio. Last Monday, at a meeting of Republican county lawmakers, LaValle cited a "real possibility" Levy could replace Lazio on the party ticket, sources said.

State GOP spokesman Thomas Basile said the Levy-Lazio meetings were part of an effort to keep party leaders updated on campaign developments. "Suggestions that these meetings are anything other than that is a mischaracterization of their intent."

Meanwhile, Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh, whose organization is the party's largest in the state, said: "I think Levy's message of how to deal with a state government in disrepair and financial ruin is right for the times. If Levy got into the race, he would be the best candidate in the field."

Walsh met Thursday with party chief Long, who said he's preparing to back Lazio. Long said of Levy: "It's one thing for a guy to say he's exploring. It's another thing if he were to say 'I'm leaving the Democratic Party because it no longer represents the things I believe in and I'm changing my enrollment to Republican and I will run and seek the Republican endorsement.' "

Nassau Conservative chairman Roger Bogsted argued: "I think Levy's the only guy who would stand a chance against Cuomo."

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