Lazio Courts the Tea Party, Sans Paladino

There were no costumed Revolutionary soldiers. And there was no Carl Paladino.

At a Tea Party event in the heart of liberal Manhattan last night, about 80 people packed into a performance hall at Baruch College to hear a slate of longshot congressional candidates, followed by the man hoping to somehow carry the top of their ticket, Rick Lazio.

Lazio chose the Manhattan candidates’ forum–hosted by a group called TeaParty365–instead of accepting an invitation to debate the upstart Paladino in Syracuse on NY1 (where Paladino hosted a chicken barbecue on account of Lazio’s “chickening out”).

Paladino’s running mate, former Queens Councilman Tom Ognibene, was sitting in the second row when Lazio arrived.

“Hi, Tom,” Lazio waved from the stage.

“Hey, they won’t let me up there,” Ognibene told him with a shrug.

“You look relaxed, it’s a good place to be,” Lazio said.

Ognibene said he had supported Lazio in the past, but was upset the forum wouldn’t afford him a chance to speak for the other gubernatorial ticket. He accused Tea Party 365 of being “a forum for Rick Lazio to try to get him some traction with the Tea Party people,” and he pointed out that the executive director of the state Republican committee, Tom Basile, happened to be in attendance.

David Webb–the group’s co-founder, who tangled with Paladino over the candidate’s previous idea to use the Tea Party name for a third party line–insisted he had not excluded Paladino for Lazio’s sake. Before the event, he posted an email exchange between himself and Paladino’s campaign manager, Michael Caputo, to show the Paladino campaign missed a deadline to RSVP for the forum.

“What difference does it make if you notify them in time or not?” bemoaned Ognibene, who did not make good on previous threats to disrupt the event.

During the forum, one audience member asked Lazio whether he would debate Paladino before the primary.

“We’ve been traveling around for months, after the conventions on both the Republican and Conservative side, making our case out at different venues where we’re talking at the same time, so a lot of people have heard from both candidates in that format,” Lazio said.

“I think the main event is really the general election,” he said, citing Andrew Cuomo as their mutual enemy. “And I believe the last thing we need to do, from my perspective, is to have two Republicans go at each other.”

Lazio referred to himself–several times–as a “Contract With America congressman” (he was two years ahead of the curve, having been elected in 1992), and he generally did his best to appear like an impassioned fighter, capable of taking down Cuomo, despite being in a deep hole in the polls. Asked about the need for immigration reform and President Obama’s health care plan, he responded with the kinds of polemics that might help tap into that particular vein of Tea Party discontent that has carried several Republican candidates to unlikely victories elsewhere. But Lazio stopped short of fully embracing the anti-establishment crowd on questions like whether a state has the constitutional right to nullify a federal law (a question that was much discussed in the mid-19th century).

When one questioner asserted that a lax immigration policy was allowing terrorists to infiltrate the country’s borders, Lazio talked about the need to expand the Lower Manhattan network of surveillance cameras, and his “outrage” over the proposed trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York City.

He did not mention the proposed mosque and community center near Ground Zero–a noticeable omission given his focus on the issue of late.

After the forum, Lazio dispatched a question about how he might change the perception–echoed by each of the local editorial boards–that he’s running a single-issue campaign focused on the mosque.

“I don’t need to change it with some of the editorial boards,” he said, reiterating his call for transparency and restating his criticism of the attorney general for not investigating the project’s funding.

Lazio Courts the Tea Party, Sans Paladino