After months of drama, New York's Republicans finally will get to decide during Tuesday's primary on one of two candidates for governor - former Rep. Rick Lazio of Brightwaters, the party designee, or his Buffalo-based challenger, businessman Carl Paladino.
Lazio, 52, became the party favorite by fending off a strong challenge from Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy at June's party convention. In recent weeks, Lazio has revived what many called a lackluster campaign by making national headlines with his strong opposition to a planned Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan.
"I absolutely believe I will win this race," said Lazio, now a Wall Street executive on leave from JP Morgan Chase, referring to both the primary and the governor's race. Lazio says his main goal as governor would be to lower taxes and spending, creating a better atmosphere for job creation and investment and "really confronting the demons that are facing New York" with its huge budgetary problems.
Paladino, 64, a wealthy lawyer who built his own company, which oversees about $500 million in real estate, has attracted the support of tea party activists with his conservative views. After failing to get the GOP nod at the June convention, Paladino gathered enough signatures to place him on the primary ballot in the race for the GOP nomination. A poll out Saturday showed Paladino, who has promised to spend $10 million of his own money on his campaign, in a virtual dead heat with Lazio.
"He [Lazio] comes from a congressional legislative background - he's never really managed anything in his life," Paladino said.
Whoever wins the GOP primary Tuesday probably will face an uphill climb against the Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has a campaign war chest of $24 million. Recent polls show Cuomo has a 20 percentage point lead or more over both Lazio and Paladino.
"There's a saying, 'Money is the mother's milk of politics but it can't make an ugly baby pretty,' and on the issues, Andrew Cuomo is an ugly baby that the people of New York State will not want," Cox said.
"As it comes closer to the election, and the people of New York State focus on what they really want, you'll find . . . the money will come in from the people, and that's where the money will come [from] for Rick Lazio," Cox said. "And that's why he has a very good shot of winning the governorship."
Going into the primary, experts say the two GOP candidates each face several key challenges:
Lazio: Free media coverage - such as he got with his appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" last month about the proposed Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center attacks in Manhattan - is one key to building last-minute support and victory, experts said. Lazio's cash-strapped campaign had $472,514 as of Aug. 30, the cutoff for the final disclosure report ahead of Tuesday. That means he has to rely on media coverage to supplement his limited campaign ad budget.
Lazio also needs to appeal to voters plagued by the poor economy. His ties to Wall Street as a lobbyist and his efforts in Congress to deregulate the nation's banking and financial services industry have come under attack from Democrats. But Lazio said he considers his Wall Street experience a plus for a state desperate for jobs and tax revenue, and could boost his showing in the GOP primary.
Yet will Lazio attract enough enthusiasm at the polls? He is supported by many establishment GOP figures - none more prominently than Nassau County GOP leader Joseph Mondello - and he needs these regular organizations to get out the vote for him.
Some top Republicans seem to be sitting out the race, however. In the final days before the primary, experts say, Lazio, known for his friendly manner, should continue on the attack, tapping into voter anger about the political status quo.
"While it's offensive to mainstream politics, it's electric to the average voter," said Suffolk GOP chief John Jay LaValle.
Paladino: Crucial to his fate, according to campaign experts, is whether he can tap into the energy of the various tea party activists around the state. A big turnout upstate, and a comparatively small one on Long Island and downstate, where he has less support, also would be a major boost. So far, seven upstate county GOP chairmen have endorsed Paladino, and his campaign has picked up many tea party supporters. Both groups seem highly motivated to turn out at the polls, attracted by Paladino's pledge to cut state spending by 20 percent and taxes by 10 percent.
But Paladino's biggest primary hurdle may be overcoming the doubts about his viability as a Republican candidate in a general election campaign against Cuomo. Paladino has been criticized for his sometimes caustic language and forwarding allegedly racist e-mails to friends. But this baggage may be tempered for some GOP voters by Paladino's independence and stories about his self-made $150-million fortune.
With Lazio already gaining the Conservative Party endorsement for the general election, Paladino also gathered some 28,000 signatures to run on an independent "Taxpayers" line, which he hopes to combine with the GOP nomination.
Lazio also faces a primary challenge within the Conservative Party from upstate lawyer Ralph Lorigo, 63, the Erie County Conservative Party chairman. Though Lorigo is close to Paladino, he has said that he's "not a stand-in or straw man for anyone" in this primary challenge.
BACKGROUND: Lazio, 52, graduated from West Islip High School and from Vassar College and earned his law degree from American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. Was a prosecutor in the Suffolk district attorney's office. Elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in 1989. Elected to Congress in 1992; served in the House for eight years. In 2000, ran against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the U.S. Senate but lost. Has worked as president and chief executive of The Financial Services Forum, a Wall Street lobbying group and as a lobbyist and a managing director at JPMorgan Chase in Manhattan. Lazio and his wife, Patricia, and their two daughters live in Manhattan and Brightwaters.
BACKGROUND:Paladino, 64, amassed a fortune from office buildings, retail shops and apartments, primarily in the Buffalo area. Founded Ellicott Development Co. in 1973 in Buffalo. Making his first bid for public office. Hopes to establish a Taxpayers ballot line. Secured a spot in the Republican primary by collecting signatures on petitions after being shut out at the state convention in June. A graduate of St. Bonaventure University and the Syracuse University College of Law. Served in the Army for three years and the Army Reserve for seven, retiring in 1981 at the rank of captain. He and his wife, Mary Catherine, live in Buffalo and have three adult children.
RALPH C. LORIGO
BACKGROUND:Lorigo, 63, earned both an undergraduate degree and a juris doctor degree from the University at Buffalo, and is an attorney with his own law firm in upstate West Seneca, a suburb of Buffalo. He has been chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party for 15 years. He also is regional vice chairman for the state Conservative Party's Western District. He belongs to the Lions Club and has been involved in the Youth Court in West Seneca. He is married with three grown children.