Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announces the arrest for...

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announces the arrest for defrauding the food stamp system. (Oct. 1, 2009) Credit: NEWSDAY/Howard Schnapp

NIAGARA FALLS - Each of the five Democrats running for state attorney general, including Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, hopes to leapfrog the others with a strong showing from the party's upstate leadersSaturday.

Rice, whose campaign treasury dwarfs her rivals, has been wooing members of the Democratic Rural Conference in recent weeks. But Eric Dinallo, the former state insurance superintendent, has traversed upstate for a year and is favored to win the DRC straw poll here Saturday afternoon.

The poll of party officials from 47 upstate counties is considered an early indicator of candidates' strength among the rank-and-file. Like the Iowa caucuses in the race for the White House, a strong finish in the DRC poll can give candidates the media attention and campaign donations needed to win at the state Democratic Committee's nominating convention in 3 1/2 weeks.

The buzz at the DRC meeting is about the attorney general's race because nominations for governor, state comptroller and U.S. senators appear to be sewed up. Andrew Cuomo, Thomas DiNapoli, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are each expected to easily win the straw poll for those offices.

"The excitement is over the AG candidates," said pollster Steven Greenberg of the Siena Research Institute and a former top aide to two Democratic Assembly speakers. "They are unknown to voters, and in some cases, party insiders. Whoever wins the straw poll will have momentum going into the convention."

However, Greenberg and others cautioned that losing the DRC vote isn't fatal. In 2002, the DRC backed Cuomo over H. Carl McCall for governor, but McCall won the nomination. In 1998, James Larocca, former head of the Long Island Association, captured the DRC nod for governor and then finished last in the primary.

The DRC's 47 counties together represent about 25 percent of the weighted convention vote, which is dominated by New York City, Long Island and other suburbs.

Rice said, "I would like to win the DRC . . . but if I don't, I have no intention of folding my tent."

Dinallo leads the field because 21 party leaders, all from rural counties, have endorsed his candidacy.

Other contenders are Assemb. Richard Brodsky and former federal prosecutor Sean Coffey, both of Westchester County, and state Sen. Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan.

Former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn and former federal prosecutor Denise O'Donnell of Buffalo are mulling runs.

At least one candidate will be satisfied if they don't finish last. "I'm unknown, but we're working hard," said Coffey, who grew up in Hempstead Village. "My focus is the September 14th primary."