"Dad," announced 16-year-old Sara Golisano, "the White House is on the line."

Thomas Golisano, a 30-year veteran of the Orleans County sheriff's department, wondered which of his friends was behind the prank. So when a "White House operator" told him to please hold for "the president of the United States," he decided to play along.

"Hey, Tom, we've been trying to get ahold of you," said a chummy voice on the line, oozing familiar Southern charm. Pretty soon, Golisano realized that the Bill Clinton sound-alike inviting him to a White House ceremony for the New York Yankees was really Bill Clinton.

"Uh, Mr. President, I think you've got the wrong Tom Golisano," he said.

He certainly did. The president was trying to court Golisano's distant cousin, Rochester multimillionaire B. Thomas Golisano, the guiding force behind the little-known Independence Party of New York. And with his misdirected effort to boost his wife's Senate campaign, Clinton was also providing a glimpse of the bizarre political landscape of New York, a state where the so-called "minor parties" wield a uniquely major influence.

"I didn't realize he was so important," Golisano the sheriff said of Golisano the political operative. He is important enough that Hillary Rodham Clinton paid him a visit during her swing through Rochester on Friday.

In fact, thanks to the Empire State's quirky election laws, nontraditional parties often swing New York elections. And the jockeying over nontraditional endorsements can determine who ends up in the race. In fact, last Friday's major development--the surprising decision by Gov. George E. Pataki (R) to support his bitter enemy, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R)--was in large part fueled by GOP fears that a Conservative Party endorsement of Rep. Rick Lazio (R) would lead to a three-candidate, two-Republican race.

Sound confusing? It is. New York laws allow candidates to accept endorsements from more than one party, so Lazio is wooing the Conservative establishment while preparing for the Republican primary. But those laws also make it almost impossible for candidates to remove their names from the ballot once they accept an endorsement, and since Giuliani is the darling of the Liberal Party--yes, more on that soon--Republican bigwigs are afraid that if either Giuliani or Lazio doesn't pull out soon, they'll end up splitting the GOP vote in November.

Even in a two-candidate race, the add-on party lines can make the difference between victory and defeat; in 1994, for example, Pataki narrowly ousted Mario M. Cuomo (D) on the strength of his 328,000 votes on the Conservative Party line.

"The proliferated parties in New York can be very, very important," said Cuomo, who came in second in New York's 1977 mayoral election on the now-defunct Neighborhood Preservation Party line. "Could they make the difference in this Senate race? Absolutely."

And they could make a difference in unexpected ways. For more than 25 years, no Republican has won a statewide election here without the Conservative endorsement. For over 50 years, few Democrats have won statewide without the Liberal Party line. But the high-profile politicians who are vying to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) are wreaking havoc with the usual third-party calculations. Even by New York standards, this could get really weird.

For instance, you might expect Hillary Clinton to be a shoo-in for the Liberal endorsement, which has traditionally gone to Democrats. But the Liberal Party leader, Raymond Harding, is one of Giuliani's closest friends and advisers. Both of his sons hold key jobs in the Giuliani administration. There is a joke about Liberal patronage making the rounds in city politics: What do you call a member of the Liberal Party? Commissioner.

So while the crime-fighting, welfare-slashing mayor loves to bash liberals, that has never stopped him from running as a Liberal. In fact, in 1993, 63,000 Liberal votes provided the slim margin of victory that sent Giuliani to City Hall. If Giuliani decides to run and wins the Republican primary, he probably could pick up the Liberal line as well, which could help soften his image with moderate voters in a general election. Or he could forgo the Liberal endorsement--which might alienate conservatives he would need to win statewide--and urge Harding to run another candidate who might draw votes away from Clinton, perhaps from liberal voters annoyed by what some have branded a "carpetbagger" candidacy.

And then there's Republican nightmare scenario No. 1: If Giuliani were to lose a GOP primary to the less controversial and more conservative Lazio, the mayor could still run as a Liberal (and if Golisano's organization agrees, as an Independent) in the general election.

"It's going to be interesting," Harding said. "I'm sure we'll be actively involved."

So will Michael Long, a Brooklyn liquor store owner who runs the Conservative Party. He is a close ally of Pataki and former senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R), both of whom despise Giuliani. In a recent interview, he warned that any candidate who wants his party's endorsement will have to renounce the Liberal endorsement, recalled that Giuliani endorsed Cuomo over Pataki in 1994, and noted that Lazio was the only candidate officially seeking his imprimatur. But he did meet with Giuliani three months ago, and said he would keep an open mind about 2000.

"It's a new year, so we're willing to listen to anyone," Long said.

While Clinton and Giuliani are still officially undecided about the race, Lazio has said he will announce his candidacy formally on Aug. 16, and so far has not backed away from that. In an interview before Pataki's bombshell, he predicted that Giuliani's support for Cuomo and opposition to impeachment would doom him with GOP primary voters, who tend to be more conservative. He vowed to claim the Conservative column at the party's convention in June, then use his momentum to knock off Giuliani in the Republican primary in September, just as D'Amato did to then-Sen. Jacob Javits in 1980.

"The Conservative line is absolutely essential for a Republican to win this election, and I don't see how Giuliani gets it," Lazio said a week ago. "New York politics can be very byzantine, you know. It doesn't always work out the way conventional wisdom would have it."

But then there is Republican nightmare scenario No. 2: Lazio gets the Conservative endorsement, then Giuliani wins the Republican primary. If that happens, Lazio won't be able to pull his name off the ballot, even if he drops out of the race. And Lazio hinted that he might not want to drop out even if he did lose the primary, pointing out that in 1970, James Buckley won a three-candidate Senate race here on the Conservative line.

In fact, in the 1998 attorney general's race, New York's unusual if-you're-in-you're-in ballot rules nearly swung the election. Elliott Spitzer (D) defeated Dennis Vacco (R) by just a few thousand votes. But Spitzer probably would have won by much more if the Independence Party nominee, Catherine Abate, had not remained on the ballot despite dropping out and endorsing him shortly before Election Day; she still got 80,000 votes. (Then again, many analysts believe Vacco would have won if he had accepted the endorsement of the Right to Life Party.)

In recent weeks, some GOP insiders, hoping to help presidential front-runner George W. Bush in New York and to secure the Senate seat, have urged Pataki to try to unite the party behind a single candidate before the Conservative convention. Most of those insiders argued that Giuliani is the only candidate with the star power to beat the first lady.

"If there are two Italian American Republicans in a race against Hillary, she can go back to Arkansas for the entire campaign--she'll still win," Cuomo chortled.

If Lazio does bow to Pataki's wishes, as he has suggested in the past he would, the first lady may step up her courtship of the Independence Party, a Reform Party-style operation founded in 1994 by the Ross Perot-like Golisano. The Independence nod carried Spitzer to victory last year, and it will occupy the coveted third row in 2000, thanks to Golisano's third-place showing in last year's gubernatorial election. It is the state's fastest-growing party, and its endorsement could help bolster the first lady's credentials as a centrist.

So Hillary Clinton recently met with state chairman Jack Essenberg. Then again, so did Giuliani and Lazio. "We're going to play a very significant role in this race, and we want to make sure respect is paid to our party," Essenberg said. "Everybody's wooing us right now."

Even the leader of the free world. Clinton spent a few minutes on the phone that night in June with Tom Golisano the deputy sheriff, who joked that he should feel free to call any time. ("I'll do that, Tom," the president replied.) Ten minutes later, the White House placed another call to the Golisano farmhouse. This time, an operator handled the call.

"She said, 'The president wants to know if you have the other Tom Golisano's number; he really needs it,' " Golisano recalled. "They really wanted to talk to him bad."

Party Time

In New York, campaign rules let candidates run on more than one ticket, which gives the Empire State's sizable "minor parties" major power in influencing elections.

Party Enrollment

Democrat 4,999,541

Republican 3,078,574

Not affiliated 2,138,100

Conservative 169,990

Independence 147,545

Libera l92,961

Right to Life 50,869

Green 121

Working Families 102

SOURCE: New York State Board of Elections