Myers Mermel

Myers Mermel Credit: Newsday File / Ari Mintz

Manhattan businessman Myers Mermel may have entered the Republican gubernatorial competition late, but he has entered it like a stun grenade.

Queens Republicans, one of the biggest blocs to have publicly endorsed Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, announced Thursday they are switching to Mermel. But a Queens party spokesman also said it would vote to allow Levy a place on a primary ballot.

"New York State needs a rock-ribbed solid Republican conservative - fiscally and socially - and needs one now," party spokesman Anthony Carollo said in a statement.

But he added later, "If we can have our cake and eat it too, where you give Steve Levy . . . an opportunity to show his best and earn that spot, why not?"

Levy and former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio Thursday intensified their hand-to-hand combat over delegate support at next week's GOP convention, while Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino has fought the battle with a statewide media buy and Erie Canal boat tour.

Manhattan reportedly threw its support to Lazio Thursday, while the Levy camp announced the support of Jefferson County's chairman and delegates in Wayne and Clinton counties.

But even before the Queens endorsement, the little-known Mermel had already begun building his own tally, releasing statements of personal support from the chairs of Schuyler, Herkimer and Cortland counties. Late Thursday, Cayuga County's chairwoman switched from Levy to Mermel.

"I backed Levy because he was not Lazio, but I always knew in the back of my mind Levy is a Democrat," Cayuga Chairwoman Cherl Heary said. "Myers is the true conservative Republican candidate who believes in the core principles of the party."

According to a rough estimate compiled by the Albany Times Union as of last night, Lazio stands at 53.33 percent of the weighted party vote, Levy has 30.65 percent, Paladino has 6.93 percent and Mermel has 5.21 percent.

Party chairman Ed Cox told reporters he believes both Lazio and Levy are "in the 40s." But he emphasized that delegates will have a chance to vote twice: once to name their preferred candidate, and a second time on whether to allow a place on the ballot for Levy. As a newly enrolled Republican, Levy needs more than half of the party to agree to let him enter a primary.

Before this process is concluded, "There's going to be a lot of back and forth," Cox said.

Adding to the intrigue was a statement of support from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour welcoming Mermel to the race and adding, "I am confident the eventual GOP nominee will be competitive in the fall."

Barbour, who chairs the Republican Governor's Association, has vowed to spend $65 million on "competitive" governor's races around the country this year in general elections.

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