NEW YORK — New York Republicans on Thursday picked a former Long Island lawmaker and an economist to run in a primary for the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Republicans wrapped up a sometimes fractious party convention by giving Bruce Blakeman, a former member of the Nassau County Legislature, the party's official designation after two rounds of balloting, but former Bear Stearns chief economist David Malpass earned enough support to force a two-way Sept. 14 primary.
Gillibrand was appointed last year to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton after Clinton was named U.S. secretary of state.
The little-known former congresswoman from upstate New York is seen by Republicans as vulnerable , but party leaders failed to lure top-name Republicans like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani into the race. That opened the door for lesser-known candidates to run for the special two-year term that ends in 2012, when Clinton's term would have ended.
A third Republican candidate, former congressman Joe DioGuardi, did not earn a primary spot in convention voting but said he would try to petition his way onto the ballot – a difficult and time-consuming process that, if successful, could set up a three-way primary.
"I'm in this till the end," DioGuardi said. "I can win the Republican primary. What you saw here was the inside game. I'm not a politician."
DioGuardi last week accepted the Conservative Party line, which is valuable for Republicans running statewide.
This is the second statewide run for Blakeman, who ran unsuccessfully for state comptroller in 1998. Blakeman told the cheering crowd he would fight against high taxes and regulations that are hurting farmers and small businesses.
"People want change," he said, "not the kind of change that was promised in the last election. But they want affordability, responsibility, accountability – the principles of the Republican party."
The balloting for the Gillibrand seat wrapped up a three-day convention that featured a contentious gubernatorial floor fight and the possibility of primaries for two U.S. Senate seats and for governor.
Rick Lazio won party leaders' backing in the gubernatorial race, but Buffalo developer Carl Paladino on Thursday started a multimillion-dollar petition drive to try to force a GOP primary. Paladino must collect the signatures of 15,000 registered Republicans from around the state to get a spot on a primary ballot.
Some Republicans worry that primaries could sap time and money from candidates who already trail their Democratic opponents in fundraising and in the polls. Rep. Peter King, in nominating Blakeman, pleaded with delegates to avoid a distracting primary and focus on defeating Gillibrand.
Marist pollster Lee Miringoff, however, said a primary for the Gillibrand seat could give the little-known candidates desperately needed name recognition and provide a boost for the winner.
"I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing for Republicans," Miringoff said.
Malpass, an economic consultant who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, showed no signs of backing down from a primary fight.
"The people of this state know that things are not working, and I bring solutions," he said.
Polls show Gillibrand with commanding leads over the potential challengers. She reported having $6 million in her campaign account in April, far more than the combined cash on hand for her three potential rivals.
New York's highly popular senior Democratic senator, Charles Schumer, is running for re-election this year.
Delegates on Tuesday gave the party's official designation to take on Schumer to Gary Berntsen, a retired, decorated CIA agent who drew significant backing from tea party activists. Communications consultant Jay Townsend received enough support to challenge Berntsen in the September primary.
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.