Don’t Blink: It’s Rick Lazio’s Moment

rick lazio1 Dont Blink: Its Rick Lazios MomentBefore he became famous for donning ridiculous mascot headgear to make his weekly picks on ESPN, Lee Corso coached the Indiana Hoosiers football team for ten mostly forgettable seasons.

One year, one of his overmatched squads managed to score an early touchdown against mighty Ohio State, grabbing a 7-0 lead – at which point Mr. Corso called a time-out so his team could pose for a picture in front of the scoreboard. Then the game resumed and the Hoosiers lost 47-7.

Rick Lazio might want to borrow the same trick right about now.

The latest Siena poll has the former Long Island congressman pulling ahead of Governor David Paterson by three points in a 2010 trial heat. This would be a good point for Mr. Lazio to pause, pat himself on the back for his minor achievement, and maybe even frame a copy of the results for posterity. Because just like Mr. Corso’s Hoosiers after that early touchdown, it’ll be all downhill from here.

The problem for Mr. Lazio, of course, is that there is essentially a zero percent chance that he will face Mr. Paterson and his miserable poll numbers in next year’s general election. It’s not that Mr. Lazio won’t secure the G.O.P. nod; he can and probably will do so. It’s that Mr. Paterson won’t come within a mile of the Democratic nomination – not as long as Andrew Cuomo is alive and scandal-free.

Within the next few months, Mr. Paterson, who consistently trails Mr. Cuomo by more than 50 points in a potential primary match-up, will probably bow out of the 2010 race, leaving Mr. Cuomo to claim the Democratic nod without opposition. Alternately, Mr. Paterson could fight on and force a primary – in which he’d do well to grab a quarter of the vote. Either way, Mr. Cuomo would be the party’s standard-bearer next fall.

And against the popular attorney general, Mr. Lazio will be utterly overwhelmed: the same Siena poll that has him edging out the governor shows Mr. Lazio losing to Mr. Cuomo by 45 points.

To be sure, Mr. Lazio and his camp will spend the coming months promising to erode that lead and make it a real race.

They’ll talk about how angry voters are with the status quo and how eager they are to throw the bums out. They’ll play up the anti-incumbent (and maybe even anti-Democratic tide) that emerged in the New York City suburbs this fall and they’ll draw parallels to 1994, when a similar mood (and a national G.O.P. wave) helped an unknown mayor of Peekskill end Mario Cuomo’s Albany reign. And they’ll remind everyone that Andrew Cuomo is still untested as a candidate – and that voters weren’t interested when he last ran for governor, back in 2002.

And then they’ll lose in a landslide.

We’ve actually seen the Cuomo-Lazio race before – when Eliot Spitzer, who used the A.G.’s office to rack up popularity similar to Cuomo’s, smashed anonymous John Faso by 41 points in 2006. The margin will probably be closer next year, since 2006 was a big year nationally for Democrats while 2010 should favor the G.O.P. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to install Mr. Cuomo as a 25-point favorite. He’s just that popular.

It raises a question: Why is Mr. Lazio even bothering to run?

The easy answer is that he didn’t know what he was getting into. Word of his interest leaked last January, just days before the bottom fell out for Mr. Paterson’s poll numbers (thanks to the Caroline Kennedy debacle). But it’s more than that. The pace of Mr. Lazio’s candidacy has only accelerated even as it’s become clear that Mr. Paterson is headed for the sidelines in ’10. 

Most likely, he’s looking for visibility – hoping that a credible enough showing (I held Cuomo under 60 points!) will remind the public who he is and make G.O.P. leaders think of him the next time there’s an opening for a significant office (a House seat on Long Island in 2012, maybe?). It’s been nearly a decade since his name was on a ballot, so there’s some value for Mr. Lazio just in getting his name out there, no matter how doomed his candidacy might be.

But this isn’t without risk – something that Mr. Faso discovered this spring, when memories of his horrific ’06 showing prompted Republican leaders to give him the cold shoulder when they went looking for a congressional candidate in the 20th District. If he loses badly (by 30 or more points, say) next year, Mr. Lazio could face similar stigma.

At least he’ll be able to tell his grandkids that, for one fleeting moment, he was beating a sitting governor in the polls.