Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, who until now has backed hometown County Executive Steve Levy's exploration of a statewide race, said Monday he expects Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to be the party's candidate in November.

While the party leader made no formal endorsement because neither Cuomo nor Levy has announced his candidacy, it's Cuomo who will headline local Democrats' $300-a-head spring dinner April 13. The event was planned before Gov. David A. Paterson exited the race at the end of last month.

Schaffer left little doubt where he'll land. "I think Cuomo is the Democratic Party's candidate . . . he's our strongest candidate," he said.

Schaffer's statements came as Levy was in Albany last night for a state Conservative Party fundraiser, followed by a meeting Tuesday with state GOP leaders over his gubernatorial ambitions. It spotlights the tango Levy and Schaffer have danced for months.

"Like most political marriages, theirs is one of convenience," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Albany lobbyist, adding that if Levy can persuade the GOP to give him their nod, he'll exit Democratic ranks. "If they're [Republican leaders are] willing to put the dice in his hand, he'd be willing to roll them."

Even two weeks ago, Schaffer, acting as an emcee at a Levy fundraiser, needled his county executive: "Steve, you're still a Democrat right?"

Schaffer said he wouldn't support Levy if he runs as a Republican. "I'm supporting the Democratic candidate for governor . . . and he's politically astute enough to understand that."

Levy backers say Schaffer's reaction is not surprising. "I don't think Steve has ever had an easy relationship with either party," said Michael Dawidziak, a Levy political strategist, because of his independence. But he adds that Levy has been "very respectful" of Schaffer and does not expect their "personal relationship" to suffer.

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