Congressman Rick Lazio's team has launched a Web assault against...

Congressman Rick Lazio's team has launched a Web assault against newly-minted Republican Steve Levy. (Jan. 20, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

New York State Republicans opened a strained and strangely off-balance state convention Tuesday as intramural dueling focused on the gubernatorial ballot's two Long Islanders reached its crescendo.

Backers of former Rep. Rick Lazio, including Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello, are predicting he'll win a clear majority of the party's vote when designations for governor are brought forward Wednesday. Meanwhile, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and his champion, Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, say Levy will get all the votes he needs to win a place on the primary ballot.

But energetic challenges from two other candidates, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino and Manhattan real estate consultant M. Myers Mermel, doused all certainty as last-minute horse-trading over delegates continued last night. In a sign of the tensions, Lazio and state chairman Ed Cox have each brought in professional parliamentarians to assure no one pulls any fast ones using an obscure clause of Robert's Rules of Order.

Republicans have had high hopes this year, with a perceived rightward shift in public opinion two years into the Obama administration; a catastrophic series of scandals in Albany where every statewide office is held by a Democrat; and upset defeats of Democratic incumbents in Nassau County and elsewhere last fall that many view as bellwethers.

"The elephants are back, and our tusks are sharpened and ready for the fight!" said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who last fall defeated longtime incumbent Democrat Andy Spano.

But Democrats enjoy a 5-to-3 enrollment advantage over Republicans. Lazio failed to gain traction within his own party after a year of campaigning, while many Republicans have been disturbed at the prospect of seeing the top of their ticket go to Levy, a lifelong Democrat who switched parties this spring to run with Cox's backing.

"What the grassroots is saying is . . . one is a liberal Republican, the other's a Democrat," said Mermel, who has picked up support from a handful of counties after just a few days in the race.

Adding to the sense of something amiss was that the state's two biggest GOP heavyweights, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki, not only took a pass on running for office this year, but also declined invitations to attend the convention.

The Conservative Party put pressure on the Republicans last week by selecting Lazio as their candidate, though he faces a primary challenge. No Republican has won statewide office without their ballot line.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Paladino, who has Erie County's backing, said Tuesday Levy's campaign had approached him three times in the last 10 days - including at midnight Monday - asking him to release his delegates to Levy after the first ballot Wednesday. Paladino, who expects to have to petition his way onto the ballot, has refused.

Unhappiness over Levy's recruitment has led to some talk here of a vote of no confidence this week against Cox, who replaced Mondello last year.

"I think it's a good idea," Mondello said Tuesday of such a move, suggesting that if Levy doesn't make it onto the ballot line, Cox should consider quitting.

But Cox was resolutely upbeat. "In a year like this, which favors nonincumbents, the out-of-power party usually has a very lively convention and useful primaries, which energize grassroots," he told the delegates.

With James T. Madore

and Thomas Maier

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