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ALBANY – It was billed as a rally for repeal of the SAFE Act, New York’s tough new gun-control measure enacted last year.

But the event that drew thousands of protesters to the Empire State Plaza on Tuesday morphed into a mass demonstration against the law’s champion – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is running for re-election.

The 2010 Republican candidate lambasted him. The billionaire who flirted with running in 2014 spared nothing. Then came this year’s apparent GOP nominee, who flatly predicted that he will win. Even the Republican sheriff of Erie County chimed in.

When the rally was over, it was clear the campaign for governor was well under way.

Indeed, as angry gun-rights enthusiasts vented their opposition during an afternoon-long demonstration at the plaza’s south end, the most pervasive chant and most encompassing sentiment was, “Cuomo’s got to go.”

State police estimated about 3,500 people gathered within sight of the Capitol in a boisterous yet peaceful demonstration against the law that severely restricts ownership of semiautomatic weapons.

They heard Carl P. Paladino, Cuomo’s 2010 opponent, call the governor a “pretender” and a “man of illusions.” Billionaire Donald J. Trump, who considered and then rejected running for governor this year, ventured far beyond his opposition to gun control to blast the state’s failure to approve “fracking” for natural gas and the exodus of business from New York.

And Rob Astorino, who appears headed for the Republican nomination and a showdown with Cuomo in November, appealed to an audience bused in from across upstate to make its case at the ballot box.

“Upstate New York is going to determine this election,” the Westchester County executive said. “Forty-four to 50 percent of the vote will come from upstate New York. He takes away your rights; you take away his job.”

The event drew far fewer protesters than a similar rally last year, but none of the virulent opposition the law has spawned seemed to have waned. Hundreds of yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags fluttered from the steps of the New York State Museum while a rock band and speaker after speaker exhorted the crowd against the law and the governor.

One man in a Revolutionary-period costume paraded an effigy of Cuomo hanging from a tree, and more than one poster depicted him as Adolf Hitler. Another man held a placard reading: “Come and get ’em, Andy Boy,” referring to his guns.

David Warne, a Warsaw retiree, said he was among two bus loads from Wyoming County that descended upon the plaza Tuesday. He made the trip to “protect our Second Amendment rights” that have been “trashed in Albany and Washington.”

“It’s a message that is not being heard by our politicians,” he said. “They don’t understand that we vote and we make a difference.”

He was joined by Dave Tyo Jr., a gun shop employee from Madrid in St. Lawrence County who stood with his nephew – both draped in yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags. To him, it was “all about the Second Amendment.”

“We have a governor who tried to take that from me, and I’m not going to stand for it,” he said, adding that the flag holds a message for Cuomo.

“It means we’re not going to tolerate tyranny,” he said.

Earlier in the day during a Capitol ceremony in which he signed into law the new state budget, Cuomo said the whole issue of gun control ranks with abortion and fracking as controversies that lead to strong feelings on both sides. But he said he sides with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island, who rode calls for stricter gun laws all the way to Congress after her husband was killed by a shooter on a Long Island Rail Road train.

“It’s a topic that drives strong emotions,” Cuomo said. “So I understand it.”

And Cuomo aides were quick to point to a recent Siena College poll that showed 63 percent of voters support the SAFE Act, compared with 32 percent who oppose it. One year ago, in March 2013, voters supported the new gun law by a 61 to 35 percent margin.

Still, Tuesday’s rally seemed to take on an anti-Cuomo life of its own as speaker after speaker railed against the governor. It also seemed to depict the current state of affairs within the Republican Party as Paladino introduced Trump as “our next governor,” even though the Manhattan real estate developer has made it clear he is not interested.

“That was before I talked to him in the car picking him up at the airport,” Paladino told The Buffalo News after the rally, again hinting that Trump may change his mind.

Trump sounded some of the familiar themes of his erstwhile “campaign” for governor, once again homing in on Buffalo.

“Buffalo has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, which is incredible to think of,” he said. “On top of everything else, they give you the SAFE Act.”

Paladino then told the crowd that he is an Astorino fan but clearly hinted he favors someone with money and name recognition.

Astorino countered by evoking memories of New York City tabloids depicting Paladino as “Crazy Carl” while staking his own claim to the nomination with the crowd.

“I love Carl,” Astorino said, “but he’s crazy if he thinks we can’t win this race.”

Acting every bit the candidate as he made his Capitol rounds Tuesday, Astorino also said nobody should question his commitment after he was “crucified by Andrew Cuomo and his money” during his 2013 successful re-election bid. He claimed $2.5 million was spent against him in his county executive’s race “because I had the nerve to stick up for the Second Amendment.”

Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, who featured his SAFE Act opposition as a main element of his successful re-election campaign in 2013, also addressed the crowd. He received strong response as he criticized Cuomo for everything from gun control to the rules governing Tuesday’s rally. He appeared in uniform and with his own gun at his side.

“The SAFE Act is not about guns, it’s about the Constitution,” Howard said. “This is about the beginning of the end.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com