When Gov. George Pataki last month suddenly tapped Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instead of Rep. Rick Lazio for the Senate nomination, Republican regulars beamed in relief over avoidance of a bruising intraparty fight. But Michael R. Long was not smiling then and still isn't.

Long, a liquor store owner in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, is the longtime chairman of the state's Conservative Party. He was not exactly thrilled that Pataki, the state's first and only governor elected with the Conservative as well as the Republican designation, had not informed him in advance that he was dumping Lazio. What worries Long now is whether he can -- or should -- make Giuliani the Conservative nominee to oppose Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Senate. If he doesn't, it might be time to address the first lady as senator.

Making matters worse, Long could hardly keep the Conservative Party from putting Patrick J. Buchanan on its presidential line if he became the nominee of the Reform Party or any other splinter group. Thus the New York Republican establishment's 2000 dream ticket of George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani to carry the state is beginning to look like a nightmare.

"This could set us back to where we were 25 years ago," Long told me. The Conservative Party was born in 1962 as a conscious protest against a left-of-center Republican Party owned and operated by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. The new party, running its own candidates for statewide office over the next dozen years, had its intended effect of moving the GOP to the right. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and his protege, Pataki, each won office as the standard bearer of both the Republican and Conservative parties. Not since Sen. Jacob Javits's election in 1974 has a Republican been elected statewide without the Conservative designation.

Now Giuliani as the GOP Senate nominee threatens this pattern. He was twice elected mayor of overwhelmingly Democratic New York City with the Liberal Party, not the Conservative, designation. It is clear that he cannot run on both the Liberal and Conservative lines. Pataki and Republican State Chairman William Powers are determined that this time Giuliani will be the Conservative Republican nominee.

That is no easy task. The Liberal Party, ridiculed by Democratic politicians as neither liberal nor a party, is a patronage machine tied to the Giuliani-directed city payroll. But the Conservative Party is indeed conservative, and it is a party. So, while a nod from Liberal leader Ray Harding is sufficient for nomination, Long cannot dictate to the filling-station operator who is seen as the typical registered Conservative voter. Many of the Conservative rank and file were unhappy when the party did not run a candidate against Giuliani's reelection as mayor in 1997, quite apart from endorsing him.

The basic Republican complaint against Giuliani always has been procedural, not ideological: He supported Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo against Pataki's successful 1994 challenge. But that sin has long since been forgiven by GOP power brokers in Albany and Washington, and Republicans like Giuliani's anti-welfare, anti-crime, anti-bureaucracy record and rhetoric. Lazio, much preferred by the Conservatives, sounds softer and has a centrist voting record in Congress.

The New York Conservative quarrel with the mayor is Giuliani's social liberalism, particularly his opposition to banning partial-birth abortion (which the nominally pro-choice Lazio supports). Can the mayor undergo an electoral conversion against a technique labeled akin to "infanticide" by the retiring senator, Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan? Not a chance, his official spokesman told me.

It is hard to imagine the New York Conservative Party nominating a supporter of partial-birth abortions. It would be equally tough for Mike Long to keep his party from endorsing Buchanan if he bolts from the Republican Party.

The importance of this prospect for the GOP can be seen by looking at 1994 returns for governor, the last close major election in the state. Pataki could not have been elected save for 329,000 Conservative voters -- almost four times the Liberal vote for Cuomo. If Giuliani runs as a Rockefeller-Javits Republican with a Liberal but not a Conservative designation, that looks like a formula for propelling the first lady to the U.S. Senate.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.