NEW YORK — Former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio survived a slow campaign start and a challenge from a Democrat backed by the state Republican chairman to win the GOP designation for governor on Wednesday.
But the nod to Lazio comes with a price: a fractured party and a weakened state party chairman.
The party division was clear in the bitter, three-hour floor fight Wednesday that almost forced Lazio into a primary campaign that he would find difficult to pay for.
Now he faces a fight with a more popular and far better-financed opponent, Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Meanwhile, two of Lazio's major Republican opponents didn't immediately step aside.
"This was a family fight, you know, you say things, you do things," Lazio told reporters afterward. "I understand that. But what's important now is the convention has spoken, the leadership has spoken. ... Now it's time to take it to Andrew Cuomo and turn this state in the right direction."
Lazio said state party Chairman Ed Cox pledged to unify the party behind him. It was Cox, the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, who recruited Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy to the race as the party's best chance for a win in November.
Cox said he had no regrets about supporting Levy and said Lazio had become a stronger candidate as a result of the Levy challenge.
"It's time we are unified," said Lazio, who won the Conservative Party designation last week, critical for Republicans running for statewide office.
"We are going to Albany and when we get there we are going to tear down the wall of incompetence and corruption," Lazio said in his acceptance speech.
In the January financial filings, Lazio had $660,000 in his campaign fund compared with Cuomo's $16.1 million. That was months before Cuomo announced he would run for governor in a state where Democrats have a nearly 2-to-1 enrollment advantage.
Lazio refused to discuss money Wednesday, but said he doesn't need to match Cuomo's spending.
"There are some who say ... Andrew Cuomo is invincible," Lazio said. "You know what I say to that? `Bring him on.'"
Republicans, citing recent local and congressional races, hope to seize on voter anger toward incumbent Democrats.
Republican adviser David Catalfamo said the party today has some of the same ingredients that led to the shocking win in 1994 by an obscure George Pataki over Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. There was the same voter anger and the same hard economic times.
"I think the vibe is similar," Catalfamo said.
But he noted one big difference: Back then the party was united by a powerful chairman, Bill Powers, who was honored Wednesday with a lifetime service award.
Democratic Party spokesman Charlie King said the Republicans' "divisive, angry" style is old politics that voters reject.
Asked whether Democrats would prefer to oppose Lazio or Levy for governor, King said it was like asking if "I'd rather play the Clippers or the Nets in the NBA finals," citing two weak teams. "Neither one really put a scare into us."
Levy needed more than 50 percent of the votes in a second ballot at the party's convention Wednesday to win a spot in a Sept. 14 primary. He got less than 43 percent, as Lazio supporters shouted, "Vote for a real Republican" and Levy supporters shouted back, "Let the voters decide."
Levy wouldn't immediately endorse Lazio after the bruising fight and said he was considering a run on a minor party line. He told reporters he had gotten into the race too late to change enough minds, but said the process had been fair and he'd "do it again in a heartbeat."
Lazio still may not avoid a costly Republican primary.
Buffalo millionaire developer Carl Paladino has vowed to get on the ballot through a voter petition process.
Paladino's supporters wanted the candidates to be given the chance to speak before delegates voted, but the idea was defeated. So Paladino, aligned with the conservative tea party movement, seized his only chance to speak: His own nomination.
"I'm up here because our party leaders have blocked us from speaking," he told delegates. "That's dysfunctional, that's ridiculous and that's flat-out wrong."
Paladino said one of his Republican opponents would clean up Albany with "a whisk broom. The other, maybe a mop. Me? I'll clean up Albany with a baseball bat."
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.