At the moment, all the suspense in the New York governor's race hangs on the fate of the guy who lost.
Long Island's former congressman Rick Lazio, who was upset by Buffalo developer Carl Paladino in the Republican primary Sept. 14 but still holds a place on the Conservative line, has until Monday night to decide whether to bow to the state GOP's written request this week that he quit the race entirely.
A series of polls released this week mostly showed Cuomo's lead over first-time candidate Paladino among likely voters to be significantly higher in a race that includes all three candidates. In a Quinnipiac University poll, Paladino trailed Cuomo by just six percentage points in a one-to-one matchup, a contest far closer than most political observers had expected for the popular attorney general.
"It's a very awkward position," said Andrew Siben, a Bay Shore attorney who is a close friend and adviser to Lazio. "Rick is a very loyal individual and he has given his word and his commitment to run the race to the very end . . . But there is mounting pressure based on some of the more recent polls. "
For Conservatives, it's proven a divisive issue: Paladino supporters are pushing hard to have him replace Lazio on their line - just days after Paladino's campaign depicted both Lazio and state Conservative chairman Mike Long as a pair of Wall Street crooks in a poster spoofing the new Michael Douglas movie.
"When this ticket unifies, the war will end and all the love begins," said Paladino campaign manager Michael Caputo.
For Conservatives, the crucial goal is to field a candidate who draws at least the 50,000 votes they need to keep their line on the state ballot. Paladino, denied a spot in the Conservative primary, created his own Taxpayers line, which is expected to draw many Conservative votes.
"If we're not given that [Conservative] line, we'll be forced to bankroll the Taxpayer line," Caputo said Friday. "Unfortunately, the collateral damage . . . would include the extinction of the Conservative Party of New York."
But Long on Friday insisted that there's no truth to reports from the Paladino camp that they've worked out an understanding.
"My candidate is Rick Lazio," Long said. "Based on the polls I've seen, I think Rick Lazio makes a very effective candidate for the Conservative Party in the general election."
Under state election rules, there are only three ways Lazio can abandon his spot on the ballot at this point - and the first two, dying or moving to another state, are not attractive options.
The third way is by accepting a nomination for a State Supreme Court judgeship - and Monday is the last day for nominating conventions. Under the scenario envisioned by party officials, Lazio would be named to a ballot in a place where the Democrats are assured of victory or if he actually wants to be a judge, to a ballot where he could win.
When asked about Lazio by reporters at a Capitol news conference Wednesday, Cuomo insisted that he saw the J.P. Morgan banker as a threat. "I believe he's going to take votes from me. That's what I'm afraid of," Cuomo said with a chuckle.
But Marist Institute pollster Lee Miringoff said it would be better to view Lazio as "Cuomo's insurance policy."
"If the race got close, there would still be some Lazio votes that would not be going Paladino's way," Miringoff said. "In the New York City suburbs, Lazio's getting 16 percent, so he's a factor."
Lazio was evasive when asked about his plans at an Associated Press convention in Albany on Wednesday. "The voters have spoken. I know some people would suggest some type of backroom deal to change that result. I just expect I'm going to be a voice and involved and engaged in this debate."
But if Lazio plans to withdraw, that hasn't been made any easier by the letter from Republican leaders asking him to go, which was released to the press - a move Siben called "shameful . . . unnecessary, disrespectful and downright hurtful."
With James T. Madore