ALBANY, N.Y. -- The attention of New York Republicans has turned to Rep. Rick Lazio in the wake of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's decision to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The big question: Can the little-known Long Island congressman be the giant-killer Republicans are looking for?
That depends on who you ask.
One veteran New York pollster said Giuliani's departure from the race had to be good news for Clinton.
''All things being equal, I don't think she should be doing cartwheels, but maybe a few handstands,'' said Lee Miringoff, head of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion.
Republicans scoffed at the notion that Giuliani's departure would boost Clinton.
''In one sense, it's a more difficult race for Hillary Clinton than it was before, because now it's all about her, and that always works to her disadvantage,'' said Sen. Mitch McConnell, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Giuliani announced Friday that he was dropping out of the race to undergo treatment for prostate cancer.
Lazio immediately re-entered the race he had stepped out of nine months ago at Gov. George Pataki's urging, and the governor quickly endorsed Lazio's revived candidacy.
Appearing on CNN's ''Larry King Live,'' Pataki said New York Republicans had plenty of qualified potential replacement candidates, but ''clearly the best would be Rick Lazio.''
Giuliani also said Friday that he was ready to back Lazio, if he was the GOP choice.
The state party meets May 30 to pick its nominee, although other hopefuls could challenge that choice in a September primary.
Polls have shown Pataki -- who already killed one Democratic political giant, three-termer Mario Cuomo, in the 1994 governor's race -- as the strongest potential Giuliani alternative. But Pataki said again Friday that he wouldn't enter the race.
''I appreciate people being encouraging,'' he said, ''but I'm not going to run.''
In recent days, Pataki has passed the word to other GOP leaders that he wants Lazio to become the candidate. The word seemed to have gotten around.
''The Republican Party is going to coalesce around him in about 3.2 seconds,'' said Kieran Mahoney, a veteran New York political operative who counts Pataki among his clients. ''Everybody I've talked to is for Lazio, and I've talked to everybody.''
Saturday morning on NBC's ''Today,'' Rep. Peter King, another Long Island Republican who had expressed interest in a Senate bid, said he would not seek the nomination.
''The last thing I want to do is divide the party,'' he said. ''I'm proud to support Rick Lazio. ... I think he'll be a great senator.''
How Giuliani's exit affects the race remains to be seen.
Pollster Miringoff said the mayor's departure would give the first lady a good shot at picking up suburban, Jewish and independent voters who had been leaning toward Giuliani.
Other observers disagreed.
''As soon as he (Lazio) catches up to her in name recognition, he catches up to her,'' pollster John Zogby predicted. ''I think very soon, you're going to see them tied.''
Republicans said raising money shouldn't pose a major problem for whoever runs against Clinton. Lazio's campaign has raised $3.5 million, compared to $12 million for Clinton.
''Giuliani proved there was a tremendous amount of anti-Hillary money out there nationally that will come flooding in to whoever the Republican nominee is,'' said Nelson Warfield, a New Yorker who was Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign press secretary.
One advantage Lazio has is his strong ties to the state's Conservative Party. No Republican running for statewide office in New York has won since 1974 without Conservative Party support.
Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long had refused to back Giuliani because of the mayor's support for abortion rights and his closeness to Liberal Party boss Raymond Harding.
On the Net:
Lazio campaign: http://www.lazio.com
Giuliani campaign: http://www.rudyyes.com
Clinton campaign: http://www.hillary2000.org
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