Republican mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota's commanding lead over John Catsimatidis among likely primary voters is driven by an electorate that considers Lhota an experienced candidate who can keep them safe and get things done, an amNewYork-News 12 poll found.

Half of those surveyed said they'd vote for Lhota, a former Giuliani administration deputy mayor and head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and 28 percent back Catsimatidis, a billionaire grocery and oil magnate. Fifteen percent were undecided.

Those wanting a candidate who could get things done preferred Lhota 66 percent to 27 percent, and those deciding mainly based on experience chose Lhota by 83 percent to 16 percent.

The top reason given by Catsimatidis' backers for supporting his candidacy are his ideas and proposals, which have included arming street cops with metal detectors, hosting a new World's Fair and erecting a monorail along the Long Island Expressway from Queens to Manhattan. Those choosing mainly on ideas and proposals preferred Catsimatidis 57 percent to 38 percent.

The poll was done between Aug. 22 and Aug. 27 among 400 likely Republican primary voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. Nearly 9 out of 10 of them said they were almost certain to vote in the primary.

Safety a key GOP issue

Regardless of the candidate they supported, crime and safety was the top issue that GOP poll respondents said should be the next mayor's focus, a finding reflected in follow-up interviews of some of those surveyed.

Elsie Mazzotta, 79, of Glendale, Queens, said she doesn't want New York City to return to the pre-Giuliani days, when she was mugged and her house was broken into.

"Giuliani endorsed him and I like Giuliani a lot," she said of Lhota.

"This Catsimatidis -- every day I get things in the mail, I get buttons, I get fans, I get posters," she said. "It just seems to me like he wants to buy his way to the office."

The self-financed Catsimatidis has spent more than $4.1 million compared with Lhota's $1.6 million, according to campaign finance data late last week.

Likely Lhota supporter Sandra Chase of Brooklyn Heights cited Lhota's experience working for Giuliani and as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"I think he's the man for the job," Chase said. "He's experienced. He's been there, he's done that. He knows where the bodies are buried. He's dealt with this huge bureaucracy that is New York City."

Support for stop-and-frisk

James Borruso, 35, of Staten Island, said he's supporting Catsimatidis because of the stop-and-frisk issue.

"He's very pro-police, and I'm a New York City cop," Borruso said. "It's about the respect that the police deserve right now."

Pollster Mike Berland of the firm Penn Schoen Berland called the Republican focus on crime "one of the counter-effects of the Democrats' debating stop-and-frisk," a tactic all five of the major Democratic candidates have vowed to restrict or eliminate if elected.

"This whole stop-and-frisk debate is obviously concerning Republicans as crime and security remains one of the top issues," Berland said.

Lhota, Catsimatidis and George McDonald -- the long-shot GOP candidate whom the survey showed has 5 percent of the vote -- all strongly support the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactic.

"In the primaries, it's like we're dealing with two New Yorks," Berland said.

Among those Republicans surveyed, 61 percent thought Bloomberg's policy implementation of stop-and-frisk was an excellent or good policy.

Yet overall the poll showed that 56 percent of Republican voters believe it's time for change from Bloomberg's policies, and 52 percent said the city was on the wrong track. Only 38 percent said that his policies should continue through the next mayor and an equal number say the city was on the right track.

Still, 67 percent of respondents say they voted in 2009 for Bloomberg's third term, compared with 15 percent who voted for Democrat Bill Thompson then, and 66 percent approve of the job Bloomberg has done.

Learning curve

There has been little difference between Catsimatidis and Lhota on key issues. Both are running for political office for the first time and have been caught in gaffes.

At a forum in May, Lhota likened Port Authority police officers to "mall cops" -- an insult he'd prefaced with "I know I'm going to get in trouble for saying this" and for which he had to apologize the next day. Catsimatidis, in an interview in The New York Times last December, said New York "never really felt the recession."

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