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As Carl P. Paladino ratchets talk that he will once again “swing a baseball bat” at New York’s Republican establishment, some of the party’s top figures are countering with a brushback pitch of their own.

Key GOP leaders may be calling Paladino’s bluff as he threatens to reprise his 2010 run for governor next year – this time on the Conservative line – if he doesn’t approve of their selection of a gubernatorial candidate. After The Buffalo News reported last Monday he was considering that option, Paladino got statewide media attention and also appeared on Fox Business Network.

Though New York Republican Party leaders are lying low and declined to comment after’s Paladino’s threat, others warn that the party must revive its “Rockefeller Republican” roots and neutralize Paladino if it harbors any hope of beating incumbent Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo next year.

“In order to build a coalition, especially when you’re the minority party, you need to remember you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” said John J. Faso, the 2006 Republican nominee for governor. “It can be counterproductive to get into this kind of rhetoric and name-calling.”

The resistance to Paladino follows the Buffalo developer’s stepped-up attacks on moderates he calls “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only) like Senate GOP Leader Dean G. Skelos and Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb. He has labeled them “phonies” and says they should be replaced.

Skelos, Kolb or state GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox would not comment for this story, though Skelos spokesman Scott Reif in February called Paladino “a failed former gubernatorial candidate looking to extend his 15 minutes of fame.”

And GOP insiders see no chance either leader is about to be deposed.

But through his website, Paladino is announcing “Carl Paladino is back in New York politics” and rails against Skelos, while criticizing the legislative leaders on the FOX Business Network last week.

“If the Republicans don’t get rid of Skelos and Kolb, I would seriously consider taking a Conservative nod in order to put the Conservative Party on Line 2,” Paladino told The Buffalo News earlier this month, brandishing the threat of gaining enough votes to relegate the GOP to minor party status for the first time since its inception in the 1850s.

Paladino polarization

That causes Republican senators like Jack Martins of Mineola (who won his 2012 on the strength of the Conservative line) to suggest the GOP can do without Paladino’s “polarization.”

“Carl Paladino isn’t the face or voice of the Republican Party in New York or hopefully anywhere,” Martins told Newsday last week.

This plays out as national Republicans debate whether to turn to moderates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or tea party favorites like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as the face of the party – especially as another presidential election in 2016 draws near. Republican pollster Barry Zeplowitz of Amherst, who consults on major races around the country, says his survey research from conservative states in the Midwest indicates Paladino may not speak for a majority of fellow Republicans.

His polling shows 45 percent of Republicans identify themselves as “fiscally conservative” as opposed to only 13 percent “tea party aligned,” he said.

Even though Paladino has proven he can win a Republican primary in New York state, Zeplowitz said the party cannot ignore the need to compete in a general election dominated by Democrats.

“I think Carl has played a significant role in guiding the party,” he said, “but it is still big enough to be able to reach across party lines to moderate and conservative Democrats to be influential in this state again.”

New York Republicans should not “isolate themselves” into a tea party faction or any other faction, Zeplowitz said.

“With the proper candidate, we should be able to at least run a good campaign against Cuomo or anyone else,” he added.

A champion of Paladino

State Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long of Brooklyn is a key figure in how Paladino will fit into the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Though Long favored Republican Rick A. Lazio in 2010 before embracing Paladino as the party nominee, most observers believe Paladino not only preserved the party’s presence on the ballot but vaulted it onto Row C. Now Paladino aims to raise the Conservative Party to the second ballot line if the GOP fields a weak and underfinanced candidate.

Long says he favorably views Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino as a potential candidate, even if Paladino does not.

“Astorino has purposely avoided the conservative side of the party and hangs around with all the RINOs,” Paladino told The Buffalo News. “He’s going to have to make significant choices if he’s going to be a candidate.”

Long said he discussed his party’s nod with Astorino in recent days and suggested the county executive and Paladino need to talk.

“I do not consider him a RINO,” Long said of Astorino. “He has governed with Conservative and Republican principles. He has made it clear he will test the waters and he will certainly get consideration from the Conservative Party – as would Carl.”

Either Republican would need authorization from the Conservative Party to run on the line.

“If anything, I would hope Carl and Rob Astorino would sit down and have a conversation,” Long said. “I’m pretty sure there are many things they would agree on.”

That’s basically the position of Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, a major Paladino supporter in 2010 who looks for unity this year.

“Astorino is at the top of everyone’s wish list of candidates,” Langworthy said. “He won in a dark blue county that’s a lot like Erie, and overwhelmingly, despite being pro-life and anti-NY SAFE Act.

“My hope is Rob Astorino will run and Carl will support him,” he added.

Kingmaker role

But Paladino has earned a kingmaker role, according to Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo.

Paladino beat Lazio in 2010 by a more than 2-to-1 ratio in the statewide primary, while capturing Erie County 94 to 6 percent. Lorigo, who has emerged as a major Paladino champion, insists he cannot be ignored.

Lorigo said he understands that Republicans want to name their own candidate rather than have the Conservative tail wag the GOP dog. But he said he sees nobody able to challenge Cuomo and his $28 million campaign treasury. Lorigo also said he is not sure Astorino wants to run.

“The Republicans know that if they pick someone Rockefeller-like, or someone too liberal, they are not going to get the support of the Conservative Party,” Lorigo said. “So there’s a huge benefit, even if Carl just makes sure the candidate has conservative credentials.”

Paladino holds significant influence because no Republican has won statewide without Conservative support since 1974. And though many Western New York Conservatives owe allegiance to Republican State Sen. George D. Maziarz of Newfane (a Lorigo foe), the chairman believes Paladino would easily receive the Conservative endorsement at the party convention next spring.

“If you can show me Rob Astorino has Conservative values, then we carry on,” Lorigo said. “But in Carl, you have to admit we have Conservative values, name recognition, and all that is necessary.

“I’m not saying I’m moving forward,” he added, “but he is the alternative in the event the Republicans fall short.”

Faso, who acknowledges the need for a united Republican-Conservative front in New York, said voters want to hear from Cuomo challengers plans for “municipalities that are broke, finances that are perilous, and an economy and job situation that stinks.”

“Voters don’t really care about one faction versus another,” Faso said. “Whenever you talk inside baseball against the public good, the public turns off.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com