- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

NEW YORK | The unpredictable race for governor in New York got wilder Monday after Conservative Party candidate Rick Lazio withdrew, boosting the chances of the “tea party” Republican who is taking on the once-unassailable Democratic nominee, Andrew M. Cuomo.

Going against political tradition, however, Mr. Lazio refused to endorse Carl Paladino, the Buffalo developer who beat Mr. Lazio in the Republican primary. Both Republican and Conservative leaders have tried to derail Mr. Paladino’s campaign, which has been fueled by rhetoric including his intention to take “a baseball bat to Albany.”

“I look at the two major-party candidates, and I see flawed men,” Mr. Lazio said. “Flawed in terms of personal character and flawed in a commitment to ideas and principles that will restore growth and pride to our state.”

Still, the former congressman’s withdrawal before Tuesday’s deadline allows the Conservative Party to choose a replacement. That replacement could be Mr. Paladino unless someone else is nominated, Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long said in an interview. Mr. Paladino said Monday he will seek the nomination.

Mr. Lazio is expected to be nominated to a judgeship, which he doesn’t have to accept. That, however, is the legal way to drop off the ballot.

Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Poll said Mr. Lazio’s move is a major boost to Mr. Paladino.

“That would unite the Republican and Conservative lines, which is key to a Republican winning statewide office,” he said.

Mr. Cuomo has the Independence Party line and the Green Party’s support. Mr. Paladino has his own Taxpayers party line to attract tea party activists.

Polls had long said the race was Mr. Cuomo’s to lose. He is the son of a popular former governor and a formidable politician in his own right. Democrats also hold a nearly 2-to-1 enrollment advantage in the state.

A Marist College poll of likely voters last week found Mr. Cuomo had a 19-point edge over Mr. Paladino, but that field included Mr. Lazio, who had 8 points. A Quinnipiac University poll, also last week, found Mr. Paladino trailing by just 6 percentage points among likely voters when Mr. Lazio wasn’t included in the mix.

“This was supposed to be a snooze,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist from Baruch College. “This is wonderland!”

Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential nominee, said Mr. Lazio was a hero to conservatives for abandoning his third-party run. “Thanks 4 selfless act 2 allow your great state 2 thrive,” she wrote on Twitter.

Told of Mr. Lazio’s decision, Mr. Paladino said: “We’re happy about that. I think Rick Lazio and I ran a primary that was above the garbage and the trash. We addressed issues.”

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said: “The spotlight is now on the choice between the tea party extremism of Carl Paladino or Andrew Cuomo’s record of fighting corruption, standing up for a woman’s right to choose, and his detailed plans to create jobs for New Yorkers.”