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Donald J. Trump may have gained the most important supporter yet in his increasingly focused bid for this year’s Republican nomination for governor.

Carl P. Paladino, the 2010 GOP candidate, said Tuesday he left a Manhattan meeting with other upstate Republicans and Trump on Monday convinced that the billionaire real estate developer and TV star represents the party’s best chance to challenge incumbent Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo this year. And when asked if a Trump candidacy would cancel Paladino’s threat to run again in 2014 – this time on the Conservative line – he replied: “Absolutely.”

“I think we’ve found a leader,” Paladino said. “I would hope he will soon make his intentions known.”

Paladino and four other upstate Republicans left a two-hour dinner meeting with Trump expecting that he and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino will now begin to make their case to Republican county chairmen around the state.

That means GOP leaders from the big counties on Long Island to the sparsely populated Adirondacks may soon be receiving calls from “The Donald” seeking support, as well as from Astorino.

It now boils down to an effort to gain 75 percent of the vote at the Republican State Convention in May to avoid the one thing Trump says will end his effort – a GOP primary.

“There are several powerful county chairmen who see this as Trump’s candidacy,” said East Aurora political consultant Michael R. Caputo, who also attended the Monday meeting. “I think the process is unfolding toward an end result and his decision. He needs to see a path to unity being blazed by the chairmen.”

Paladino and Caputo joined Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, Onondaga County Chairman Thomas V. Dadey Jr. and Assemblyman David J. DiPietro of East Aurora for the almost two-hour dinner meeting. But Paladino may have emerged as the parley’s most crucial attendee, since his support for Trump – conditioned on the New York developer actually running – removes the specter of divided Republican-Conservative opposition to Cuomo.

Indeed, Republicans around the state recognized the possibility that a well-funded campaign by the well-known Paladino could drive the GOP from its traditional position as one of New York’s two major parties, since a strong Conservative showing could position the minor party to replace the GOP on Row B of the state ballot.

But Paladino emphasized Tuesday that he engaged in easy conversation with Trump, that they agree on just about all major issues and that top Republicans like state Chairman Edward F. Cox should recognize the need to unite behind one candidate.

“I think he is very committed under the right circumstances to run,” Paladino said of Trump. “But we have our challenges ahead to get the party thinking in the right direction.

“You would expect the party leadership to open their arms to him,” he added.

Paladino said he did not ask Trump if he would commit to supporting the removal of Senate Republican Leader Dean G. Skelos and Assembly Minority Leader Brian N. Kolb from their legislative positions – previously a condition for his backing.

He said he would bring up the topic at a future meeting, but also said he views Trump as a strong enough personality to deal with Skelos and Kolb.

“I just have so much more confidence with a Trump,” he said.

Astorino spokeswoman Jessica Proud said the meeting and Paladino enthusiasm for Trump have changed nothing for the county executive.

“Rob is going through the process, speaking to party officers and donors, and will make his decision in a month or so,” she said. “We would encourage Donald Trump to do the same.”

Paladino has consistently demonstrated a lukewarm reaction to an Astorino candidacy, and reiterated Tuesday that Trump brings name recognition, money and “values” to the effort – as well as a perception of being “above the fray.”

He said he and others at the dinner peppered Trump with “hard questions” about his commitment to running and his truncated presidential bid in 2012. But Paladino said he was impressed.

“He’s a man of his word,” he said. “I was taken aback by the comfort of my conversation with him.”

DiPietro said he also came away convinced that Trump will run if the party unites behind him.

“Mr. Trump made it very clear he does not want the party beating itself up and then have just six or seven weeks to go after Mr. Cuomo,” the assemblyman said.

He also said Cox has never won a statewide race, is responsible for the party being in “shambles” and should back off his support for Astorino.

“He needs to see the writing on the wall,” DiPietro said.

Trump is slated to appear Jan. 31 at Langworthy’s annual Lincoln Day Reception in Salvatore’s Italian Gardens, Lancaster, which organizers are already touting as an event to showcase Trump’s appeal in upstate’s biggest county – one that rejected Cuomo in 2010.

“He wants to see how much interest there is in his candidacy among the rank- and-file membership,” Caputo said. “That event will become a linchpin in his decision.”

Caputo also said the GOP leaders were satisfied that Trump can balance his business interests – including his “Celebrity Apprentice” television show – with running New York State.

“For a long time, he’s had a succession strategy in his business,” Caputo said. “He said it’s something he can handle and he’s not worried about it.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com