Romney team in New York looks to deliver knockout primary blow to Rick Santorum

April 4, 2012

“A little secret,” Guy Molinari, the New York state director for Mitt Romney’s campaign, said as he leaned across his desk in Staten Island. The senior campaign advisers in Boston “don’t want us to be saying too much about how strong they are in the Northeast,” he confided. “They don’t want to look like just a Northeast candidate.”

Molinari had no such reservations. The local Republican kingmaker said that “a big, big” Romney victory is assured in New York’s April 24 primary, even in rural pockets friendly to Rick Santorum. Romney’s expected landslide, which isn’t much of a secret at all, is, Molinari said, “going to be it for Santorum and the rest of ’em.”

New York’s preeminence as a political ATM has long made it an essential source of money in presidential elections. But when it comes to the actual voting, the state has mostly been an afterthought. Now in New York, with its prize of 95 delegates — the third-largest haul in the country — GOP leaders are boasting that they’re about to put an end to the perpetual Republican primary race. If Romney’s victories Tuesday night in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District served as a death sentence for Santorum’s campaign, New York promises to be the executioner. Romney’s backers here — elected officials, political operatives and mega-bundlers — hope to be so intimidating that they scare Santorum out of the race altogether.

If Santorum gets pummeled in New York and suffers a humiliating loss in his home state of Pennsylvania, Molinari said, “he is finished, finished, finished. Nobody is ever going to look at him as a political commodity.”

* * *

Molinari, a former congressman and Staten Island borough president, keeps an office down the road from pizza parlors, bagel places and nail salons on Staten Island’s Forest Avenue. The room is lined with pictures of him with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, for whom he acted as New York state director in the 1988 presidential campaign and whose signature was scrawled across his congressional tie clip. Between sips from a coffee mug that read “What a Guy,” he pointed at a photo of his old friend Rudy Giuliani. Molinari insisted that the former mayor’s endorsement of Romney was imminent.

“He’s about to,” Molinari said, acknowledging that Giuliani didn’t get along with Romney in the last election and that there remained “bad blood.” “He wants to do it for the sake of the country, so he is willing to put his own feelings aside.”

Giuliani would not be alone.

The state’s Conservative Party headquarters, a walk-up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, is cluttered with printer paper, political posters and a triptych of Richard Nixon, Reagan and Bush. The party’s venerable chairman, Michael Long, has for months resisted endorsing Romney, despite pressure from Molinari. Long used to shuttle from the offices to his day job in a nearby liquor store, but he has since sold the business and made the party his full-time occupation.

Now he’s ready.

“New York could be the icing on the cake — it’s as simple as that,” said Long, who said he would encourage his party’s leaders to endorse Romney. “I think we better get off the dime.”

And in Lower Manhattan, Rep. Peter T. King recently devoted part of his morning radio show to discussing whether Romney’s running mate would be Marco Rubio or Tim Pawlenty. After the show, he stepped out onto Broadway, where over the din of beeping taxis he said he would probably announce his formal endorsement closer to a primary that would serve to tell Santorum, “It’s impossible.”

* * *

The last time New York figured in a Republican primary was in the 2000 campaign between George W. Bush and John McCain, whom King and Molinari prominently backed. McCain met with opposition from the GOP establishment, including then-Gov. George Pataki, whom McCain mocked as “Comrade Pataki” for attempting to use party rules to keep the senator from Arizona off the ballot. Since then, King said, New York has been reduced to a political bank account for visiting candidates.

“To end the primary,” he said, “would then send a message to the party and the rest of the country that New York is a political player in vote-getting as well.”

New York owes the fortuitous timing of its primary to the usual political haggling. New York’s Republicans, who control the state Senate, wanted the primary to be in March, when they thought it would have more impact. The Democrats, who control the state Assembly, wanted to push it back to June. They settled on April 24 — a date few people imagined would still be relevant in the nominating process.

All four remaining candidates qualified for the ballot by meeting the rather low “nationally recognized candidate” bar. Three of New York’s 95 delegates are unbound — they can back any candidate, regardless of who wins the state. State GOP Chairman Ed Cox — Nixon’s son-in-law — and national committeewoman Jennifer Saul are expected to go with the winner. (Read: Romney.) The third, Larry Kadish, a Long Island real estate mogul, is loyal to Newt Gingrich, despite his assessment that “I don’t think he’s going to do good.”

Of the 92 remaining delegates, 58 will be allotted to candidates based on their performance in congressional districts and the last 34 will be allotted based on the statewide vote.

All of which means that there is some incentive for the candidates to actually show up in New York.

On April 19, the state party is hosting a dinner at the Sheraton in Manhattan with guest speaker Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor. “Several of [the candidates] have already agreed to attend,” said Michael Lawler, executive director of New York state’s Republican Party, though he declined to name attendees.

Molinari said Romney would be in New York for fundraisers three more times before the primary. As for himself, Molinari said he has declined repeated invites to meet the candidate.

“I said, ‘I don’t need this stuff,’ ” Molinari recounted.

* * *

New York Republicans are clearly enjoying their taste of electoral significance, but it is a freak occurrence. The state’s lasting power still exists in direct proportion to its wealth of fundraisers.

The office of John Catsimatidis, a supermarket mogul and Romney bundler, sits above a Lexus dealership on the far west side of Manhattan. The office is decorated with bright circulars advertising memorable sales at his Gristedes supermarket (“Gulden’s Mustard 2/$3”), pictures of the planes he owns, and headlines he has generated in the local tabloids.

There is also a laminated plaque of a full-page New York Times story announcing his daughter’s marriage to Chairman Cox’s son — a gift, he said, from the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

(“Oh, it was a great wedding. We had Hillary Clinton on one side of the church, Henry Kissinger. We had Governor [Ed] Rendell, Chuck Schumer. We had everybody who is anybody.”)

But mostly the walls are covered in hundreds of plastic gold-framed photos with political personalities, most notably Bill and Hillary Clinton (“That’s when we threw the president a surprise birthday at our apartment”), but also Chris Dodd, Santorum (“I like Rick”) and Mikhail Gorbachev (“He’s a good guy”).

This cycle, Romney is Catsimatidis’s project.

He said his relationship with the candidate began when he started flying New York business leaders to Romney’s summer home in Lake Winnipesaukee in August 2010.

“The other candidates, they didn’t have access to stuff like that,” he said.

More recently, he organized a March 14 fundraiser for Romney at the Waldorf Astoria.

“No other Republican candidate has come to New York as much as him,” Catsimatidis said, as Pataki and Bill Clinton adviser Doug Band waited in another room.

Catsimatidis argued that New York’s financial support was much more important to Romney than any number of delegates it could give a candidate.

“It gave him his own army, investment bankers, bankers, Wall Street,” Catsimatidis said. “An army is always more important.”

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