Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at her office in Washington...

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at her office in Washington DC. (Feb. 15, 2012) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

ALBANY -- Stop if you have heard this one before: Republicans are having a hard time finding a strong, well-known challenger to take on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), even though they think she is vulnerable.

Sounds a bit like 2010, doesn't it?

As they prepare for their nominating convention Friday in Rochester, Republicans are considering four candidates who are relatively unknown in statewide political circles: Rep. Robert Turner (R-Rockaway Point), Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, Manhattan attorney Wendy Long and Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin.

Meanwhile, Gillibrand's poll ratings, while not overwhelming, continue to climb in her third year in office since replacing Hillary Rodham Clinton, analysts said.

"It is clear that New York Republicans -- without a well-known or well-funded opponent to take on the incumbent -- have their work cut out for them trying to win the only statewide office up for election in 2012," said Steve Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena College poll. "Eight months may be a long time, but Republicans have a lot of catching up to do."

But Republican state chairman Ed Cox contended that "this feels like a 1980-kind-of election," when a first-term Democratic president lost and Republicans gained nationally. If so, that will boost whichever Republican faces Gillibrand in November, he said.

Gillibrand was appointed in January 2009 by then-Gov. David A. Paterson to take Clinton's spot when she left to become U.S. Secretary of State. Republicans thought they would have a good shot at knocking out Gillibrand in 2010 -- a big year for the GOP nationally -- as she ran to complete the final two years of Clinton's term.

Unable to attract a big-name candidate, GOP voters selected former Rep. Joseph DioGuardi in a primary -- and Gillibrand crushed him by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio. Now, she's running for a full six-year term.

Analysts wonder if Republicans missed their best chance. "I don't think the Republicans are going to spend much money to unseat her this year," said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff. "They should've done so in 2010" -- a Republican year.

The GOP is facing three significant hurdles, experts said: Democrats hold a 2-to-1 voter enrollment edge, presidential election years tend to help the Democrats in New York and the GOP lacks a big-name challenger, Greenberg said.

"Once you get beyond George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani," Greenberg said, referring to the former governor and the former New York City mayor, "there are no big-name Republicans in New York State."

The first test for the three candidates is to secure at least 25 percent of the vote at Friday's convention to ensure a spot on a primary ballot. Many county leaders haven't endorsed anyone yet, although some are backing Long.

Maragos, 62, has been campaigning for about a year but hasn't convinced the GOP to rally behind him. He does have the support of county Republican chairmen on Long Island and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

"I'm the only candidate that has lifelong history of senior management experience and accomplishments," Maragos said. "Nobody can match my resume -- including Gillibrand."

Long, 51, is the former chief counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network, a conservative group that opposed the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. Long is a favorite among some in the Conservative Party and is the only hopeful who hasn't held office before.

"There is such a huge anti-incumbent sentiment now," Long said, "that I don't think there's any advantage to having previously held elected office."

Carvin, 57, has been a Westchester supervisor since 2007 and is a hedge fund manager. He touts his business background and that he's worked on five continents and speaks five languages. Carvin, who is white, has noted in his campaign that his wife is African-American and their children are multicultural.

"I do think I am uniquely qualified to broaden the base of the Republican Party," Carvin said. "I'm prepared to reach out to Hispanic community. I think I can make inroads to African-American community. . . . I do believe I am the most electable [Republican] candidate."

Turner announced his plans to run Tuesday. He is best known for defeating disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens) in a Queens-Brooklyn district.Turner said he would run for the Senate because he expects his district to be eliminated in redistricting.

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