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Primary: Tea party faces GOP for governor nod

ALBANY — The strength of a tea party candidate trying to ride a wave of voter anger against the state Republican leaders’ choice in the race for governor will be tested along with the future of the state GOP and Conservative parties in New York’s busy primary Tuesday.

Millionaire developer Carl Paladino, a political novice promising deep tax cuts and some eye-popping social programs as governor, has drawn even with Rick Lazio, a former congressman and the Republican and Conservative designee, according to a weekend poll.

In the latest twist in a raucous contest led from the start by Lazio, Paladino’s campaign confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that the millionaire is backing Ralph Lorigo, a Conservative who is also running for governor. Lorigo is in the little noticed Conservative primary against Lazio, the choice of that party’s leaders.

In May, Lazio beat Paladino for the line, which has been critical for Republicans running in the blue state. Lorigo won more than 25 percent of delegates’ votes to get on the ballot and was seen by some as a place holder if Lazio didn’t win the Republican nomination. Some thought Lorigo, the Erie County Conservative chairman, wouldn’t actually run. In recent days, however, he began an active campaign, without reporting any expenses as required.

Democratic voters in the primary will pare down a tight field of five candidates in the race for the party’s nomination for attorney general, a position that catapulted Eliot Spitzer — and now Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo — toward the governor’s office.

State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, strong in his district in the upper West Side of Manhattan, has a slight and growing lead in the polls over Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice; former Navy officer and attorney Sean Coffey; former state Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo, who was a key to Spitzer’s success as attorney general; and Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who led the historic reform of New York’s secretive public authorities.

And although the majority in the state Senate, which has drawn national attention for its gridlocking partisanship, won’t be decided Tuesday, its Democratic majority leader, Pedro Espada Jr., will face a strong challenge in the Bronx. Espada is accused of illegally directing millions of dollars in government grants to his health clinic. He faces Gustavo Rivera in one of New York’s poorest districts.

But the Republican primary for governor has dominated the airwaves in New York.

Now, in the last few days of the campaign, Lorigo — with what turns out to be Paladino’s backing — is fighting Lazio for the “soul of the Conservative Party.”

Party Chairman Michael Long, the state’s longest serving party leader at nearly 22 years, said he’s never seen a one candidate for governor aligning with another to derail a third.

“This is a covert political operation that reeks,” Long told the AP. “Lorigo is trying to claim the moral compass of the party, meaning the chairman — meaning me — has gone off the cliff … this is corruption at its highest peak.”

State election records show “no activity” for Lorigo, who like Paladino is from Buffalo. But in recent days he’s sent several mailings and press releases. That could result in charges he violated election law and fines.

“The current Conservative Party leadership has betrayed our party’s birthright,” Lorigo stated in one of them. “’We were founded to fight liberal Republicans, not cross-endorse them … Bill Buckley would be rolling over in his grave.”

Founded in 1962, the party was supported by National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who ran for New York City mayor on its line.

Paladino’s brother and the father of his campaign manager held a fundraiser for Lorigo in May. The campaign manager’s father, Raymon Caputo, is now listed as Lorigo’s campaign treasurer.

“Carl Paladino supports 100 percent Ralph Lorigo’s bid,” said the campaign manager, Michael Caputo. “The (Republic and Conservative) party bosses are out of their minds because they lost control of the machine — it’s complete revolt!”

The fight is splitting the Conservative Party, which needs at least 50,000 vote for governor on its line in November to maintain the automatic spot on the ballot it has held for a half-century. Paladino has started his own Taxpayers line to attract tea party activists and compete with the Conservative line.