A few months ago, former Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio seemed to have the GOP gubernatorial field all to himself. Lazio, 52, was endorsed by former Gov. George Pataki, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Nassau GOP chair Joseph Mondello.
Now with Suffolk Executive Steve Levy in the race, Lazio faces a challenge as daunting as his 2000 U.S. Senate bid against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which he lost. Brickbats already are flying, and Carl Paladino, a Buffalo real estate developer, is expected to join the race.
But with a recent Conservative Party endorsement and at least one independent poll putting him ahead of Levy, Lazio is hoping to prevail to oppose the likely Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. "I'm completely confident that Rick will be the nominee of both the Conservative and Republican parties," said his campaign manager, Kevin Fullington.
According to experts, here's three things Lazio has to do to win the nomination - and three potential pitfalls he faces.
How to win
Rev up his fundraising
Lazio must get support from groups that have butted heads with Levy. In January, Lazio's campaign kitty reported just $640,000 and scared away GOP leaders such as state GOP chair Ed Cox and Suffolk Republican leader John Jay LaValle. To wash away that 'loser' image, Lazio needs to squeeze contributions from his Manhattan legal and business friends. Lazio needs to tap into the support from police and others in law enforcement who dislike Levy for his opposition to their union contracts.
Lazio should paint Levy as a not-so-converted former Democrat. While some in the GOP may applaud Levy's tightfisted fiscal decisions, other social conservatives in the party probably won't stand for Levy's abortion rights stance (despite his opposition to a late-term abortion procedure) and his previous support for President Barack Obama. Lazio plans to travel up and down the state to make these differences clear to conservative-minded GOP voters.
Rally the GOP
Between now and the June party convention, Lazio needs to get the GOP behind him and persuade Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano to endorse him. In the next three weeks, Lazio will pull out the stops to persuade GOP leaders to rally to his cause. But the biggest possible pickup for Lazio may be Mangano, who remains uncommitted. Mangano is likely to follow the advice of Nassau GOP chair Joseph Mondello, who has favored Lazio and doesn't like all the fuss over Levy within his party.
A split party
A looming intraparty fight could leave the GOP divided, and Lazio's campaign coffers depleted. Levy has $4 million to wrestle away the nomination from Lazio. At the state GOP convention, Lazio will hope to hang on to the needed 51 percent among county leaders to avoid a primary challenge. Despite Levy's gubernatorial announcement in Albany, Lazio seems up for a fight. But a protracted war within the GOP ranks may wind up in a Pyrrhic victory, particularly for Lazio, who, at least right now, has little money to spare.
In a big anti-status quo year, Lazio could end up looking like the favorite of party bosses, rather than the people. It's nice to have Pataki, Giuliani and Mondello in your corner, but will the support of such GOP bigwigs run counter to the general anti-incumbent "throw the bums out" feelings among Republicans most likely to turn out at the polls? Lazio's supporters believe Levy is the bosses' favorite, particularly state chair Cox and Suffolk's John Jay LaValle.
Lazio, distracted by Levy, has to wait to attack Cuomo. Cuomo has at least $16.1 million in campaign cash, according to his January filing, and will likely have the $25 million or more needed for a vigorous fall campaign. To Fullington, money may not be as much a factor this November as Lazio's ability to cast Cuomo as the poster boy for politics as usual. But Cuomo's camp, which for now is keeping a low profile, seems most concerned that Levy, the executive from a large suburban county, will wind up as his opponent.