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Maybe the most significant conversation of the upcoming 2014 campaign for governor will take place right here in Buffalo on Wednesday.

That’s when Erie County Republicans stage their annual holiday reception, featuring Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is talking more and more about challenging Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo for governor next year. According to party sources, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino – the 2010 Republican candidate for governor – will also attend the affair at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

And the bet there is that these two huge figures in the New York Republican Party will gather right near the Swedish meatballs and little hot dogs wrapped in dough to hash out just what is going to happen in 2014.

“What are you going to do, Carl?” Astorino will probably ask. “If you run on the Conservative line the way you’re threatening, you could wreak havoc with the Republican Party.”

Indeed, Paladino is talking that way. And so far, he has said nothing encouraging about Astorino, whom he says, “hangs out with RINOs [Republicans In Name Only].”

“I have to be assured you can raise the money, can establish name recognition and that you’re not a RINO,” is how we envision Paladino continuing the conversation. “Heck, your last name ends in RINO.”

At that point, the county executive will assure Paladino that he has run a tight ship in White Plains, and that he’s pro-life, anti-SAFE Act and fiscally conservative. That should satisfy Mike Long and his Conservative Party, he will say, so why not join up with us?

“And I just handily won re-election in a big-time Democratic county, Carl,” he might say. “I’m your guy.”

The assembled Republicans will probably take note of Astorino and Paladino and let them continue a conversation that may very well determine the future of the party in New York State. If Paladino is not sufficiently impressed and runs on the minor party line, he could conceivably attract more votes than an underfinanced Republican and dislodge the GOP from the major party position it has held since before the Civil War.

Other important talks will take place in Buffalo this week, too. State Republican Chairman Ed Cox will also visit, running interference for Astorino on Monday. Most observers think Cox likes Astorino, viewing him as a good candidate who can effectively challenge Cuomo and satisfy Paladino, too.

Much hinges on the conversations slated for Buffalo this week. And the negotiations must be handled with care, especially at the Wednesday event. Astorino and Paladino could end up infuriating Erie County Republicans, especially if they hog all the Swedish meatballs and little hot dogs wrapped in dough.

• Erie County Democrats also face their challenges this week. Chairman Jeremy Zellner is preparing to leave his chief of staff post in the County Legislature, which happens when your party loses the majority on your watch.

But his departure from County Hall to become full-time party chairman stems mostly from lack of support inside the new Democratic minority. The votes for him to stay were not there. The situation may have been summarized by Democratic Legislator Tom Loughran.

“When he first said he would run for chairman, I told him he has a conflict,” Loughran said last week. “I took issue with this from the very beginning.”

• Democratic Congressman Brian Higgins’ new friendship with top Republican fundraisers like Tony Gioia and Patrick Lee is working out very well indeed. Those familiar with the man-bites-dog event slated for Monday – in which Republicans help the Democrat – say it is shaping up as the most successful single event in Higgins’ long career.

• All of this plays out against last Monday’s fundraiser for Congressman Chris Collins, billed by Collins’ Finance Chairman Paul Harder as the “REAL Republican Congressional Holiday Fundraiser.” Ouch.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews