Carl Paladino dusted off his famous email list a few days ago and dashed off a message to a few thousand of his closest friends.

“Please support Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin for the next governor of New York State by making a donation on his website. Any amount is appreciated,” read the Paladino note.

Many of those receiving the missive felt that his support for the Republican assemblyman from suburban Troy – who is exploring a challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo next year – all but wrapped up the political career of the unpredictable real estate developer from South Buffalo.

Paladino, after all, is busy these days dominating the headlines and television news as an outspoken member of the Buffalo Board of Education during a period of significant turmoil. And he’s building hotels and office buildings everywhere – all part of “being Carl.”

But the 2010 GOP candidate for governor is now dropping his strongest hints yet that he will run again in 2014 if (and it’s a big “if”) McLaughlin or any other Republican appears unable to mount a credible effort against Cuomo.

“I like Steve McLaughlin, but I don’t know if he can raise the money for this office,” Paladino said a few days ago.

“I like Rob Astorino, too,” he added of the Westchester County executive also mentioned as a Cuomo opponent. “I don’t think he relates as well as McLaughlin to the rank and file of the party. He seems to lean toward the RINOs” – Republicans in Name Only.

If the GOP continues to line up behind Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, Paladino says he may once again run – this time on the Conservative line. He thinks he could surpass a weak, unrecognized and poorly funded Republican to establish the Conservatives as New York’s loyal opposition.

“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,” he said.

Paladino’s words must send shudders through the elegant old GOP Headquarters on Albany’s State Street. It all resurrects nightmares from 1990, when Conservative Herb London almost eclipsed a Republican named Pierre Rinfret (weak, unrecognized and poorly funded) in the effort against Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo.

Had London prevailed, hundreds of Republican patronage appointees on boards of elections throughout the state would have been replaced by hundreds of Conservative patronage appointees by virtue of winning the second-largest vote total. The same possibility haunts today’s tough times for the New York GOP. Paladino’s threat could make them even tougher.

“I have talked to so many Republicans across the state who don’t care about the Republican Party any more,” Paladino said.

No Republican, it should be noted, has won statewide office without Conservative support since 1974. Minor party; major influence.

Now Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo, who championed the Paladino cause for the minor party in 2010 and could be credited for returning it to the third line on the ballot, hopes the Paladino threat will force the GOP to find someone of stature to challenge the incumbent. If not, he says, Paladino could become New York State’s “titular head of the right.”

“If the mentality is that Cuomo is unbeatable and that mentality carries on into contributions, or if the Republican Party backs some ill-conceived middle-of-the-road type, then we need Carl,” Lorigo said.

Paladino has never really faded from the statewide stage following his 2010 drubbing by Cuomo. Despite his Election Day 2010 vow to never run again for public office, he did – easily winning last May’s School Board contest. And no one should ever forget his overwhelming victory as the tea party darling in the 2010 Republican primary – the same “moderate” GOP that spawned what were once known as Rockefeller Republicans.

Now it seems much more is at stake for New York Republicans than simply beating Cuomo. Paladino and the Conservatives now make it a question of survival.