NEW YORK — The unpredictable race for governor in New York got wilder Monday after Conservative Party candidate Rick Lazio withdrew, boosting the chances of the tea party Republican who is taking on the once-unassailable Democratic nominee, Andrew Cuomo.
Going against political tradition, however, Lazio refused to endorse Carl Paladino, the Buffalo developer who beat Lazio in the Republican primary. Both Republican and Conservative leaders have tried to derail Paladino's campaign, which has been fueled by rhetoric including his intention to take "a baseball bat to Albany."
"I look at the two major party candidates and I see flawed men," Lazio told The Associated Press. "Flawed in terms of personal character and flawed in a commitment to ideas and principles that will restore growth and pride to our state."
Still, the former congressman's withdrawal before Tuesday's deadline allows the Conservative Party to choose a replacement. That replacement could be Paladino unless someone else is nominated, Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long said in an interview. Paladino said Monday he will seek the nomination.
Lazio is expected to be nominated to a judgeship, which he doesn't have to accept. That, however, is the legal way to drop off the ballot.
Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Poll said Lazio's move is a major boost to Paladino.
"That would unite the Republican and Conservative lines, which is key to a Republican winning statewide office," he said.
Cuomo has the Independence Party line and the Green Party's support. Paladino has his own Taxpayers party line to attract tea party activists.
Polls had long said the race was Cuomo's to lose. He is the son of the popular ex-governor and a formidable politician in his own right. Democrats also hold a nearly 2-to-1 enrollment advantage in the state.
A Marist College poll of likely voters last week found Cuomo had a 19-point edge over Paladino, but that field included Lazio, who had 8 points. A Quinnipiac University poll, also last week, found Paladino trailing by just 6 percentage points among likely voters when Lazio wasn't included in the mix.
"This was supposed to be a snooze," said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist from Baruch College. "This is wonderland!"
Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential nominee, said Lazio was a hero to conservatives for abandoning his third-party run. "Thanks 4 selfless act 2 allow your great state 2 thrive," she wrote on Twitter.
Lazio said the race has "defaulted to a mania over anger" and accused Cuomo of ducking his opponents.
"I understand the anger, the primal scream, the frustration," Lazio said. "I want to see (Paladino and Cuomo) pull together to hold candidates accountable and have a real meaningful set of ideas."
Lazio was the pick of the Republican and Conservative parties but Paladino petitioned his way onto the GOP primary ballot and pulled off a shocking win two weeks ago.
Told of Lazio's decision, Paladino told the AP: "We're happy about that. I think Rick Lazio and I ran a primary that was above the garbage and the trash. We addressed issues."
Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said: "The spotlight is now on the choice between the tea party extremism of Carl Paladino or Andrew Cuomo's record of fighting corruption, standing up for a woman's right to choose, and his detailed plans to create jobs for New Yorkers."
Since 1974, no Republican in New York has won statewide office without Conservative Party support and a candidate running only on the Conservative line hasn't won statewide since 1970, when James Buckley won a U.S. Senate seat.
"I would like to think that we could do what Jim Buckley did," Lazio said. "My heart beckons me forward to do this. My head tells me that my continued presence on the Conservative line would simply lead to the election of Andrew Cuomo and the continuation of the entrenched Albany machine."
"I believe strongly that Andrew Cuomo cannot bring change," Lazio said, "but I remain unconvinced that Carl Paladino will bring the improvement that New York needs."
The Conservative Party must get 50,000 votes to maintain its automatic ballot line for the next four years and the influence that provides. Long has said his goal isn't simply to be on the winning side in elections, but to continue a conservative voice in New York politics.
AP Writers Deepti Hajela and Beth Fouhy contributed to this report from New York.