3:33pm

Fri April 6, 2012
GOP Primary Preview

Republican primary battle moves to New York

The Innovation Trail is looking at the how the GOP presidential primary will affect upstate New York. This is the first in a series of reports.

With 36 contests behind us, the Republican nomination fight is coming to New York. 

Mitt Romney is heavily favored in the Empire State - up 30+ points on Rick Santorum in the most recent poll. Romney is now widely viewed as the inevitable Republican candidate.

But that doesn't mean April 24 is not a big day for campaign watchers. GOP primary voters in five states are going to the polls, with 72 delegates in Pennsylvania and 95 in New York on the line.

New York's Republican Party is gearing up for light statewide campaigning. But the GOP's intra-party turmoil remains very much on display.

Rallying cry

Former Governor George Pataki gave the keynote address at the state's Republican convention in Rochester last month. The speech was a rallying cry for the party, laying out a fiery argument against the Democrats.

"They are the party that believes government should be our master and not our servant. This is wrong," said Pataki, to loud applause.

Pataki, who endorsed Romney in March, was one of the candidates floated early on in the Republican nominating process. But doubts were raised over of Pataki's moderate record during his three terms as governor.

Red meat?

In Pataki's 20-minute speech, there was no mention of social issues like contraception, abortion, or same-sex marriage.

Insiders say those issues aren't likely to dominate the conversation in blue-leaning New York. 

"The social things don't get people back to work," Republican Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks told reporters last month, shortly after announcing her own Congressional candidacy. "The social issues don't lower taxes."

For a candidate like Mitt Romney, that approach plays to his strength: he's the businessman who runs against President Obama's record on the economy.

For a candidate like Rick Santorum, it causes problems: he has established himself as the candidate more concerned with social issues.

Fiscal focus

New York Republican chairman Ed Cox says the candidates should focus on fiscal issues like government spending, taxes and over-regulation while campaigning in New York.

But Cox also says New York Republicans don't necessarily separate fiscal and social issues.

"They know the candidates who are conservative on social issues are more apt to be really pro-growth, pro-fiscally-responsible candidates," says Cox. Cox says many voters think a socially conservative president would "in fact carry through those fiscal policies and those pro-growth policies."

The conflict between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican party has defined the 2012 presidential primaries.

In New York State, that conflict is not new.

In the 2010 governor's race, hyper-conservative Carl Paladino and moderate Rick Lazio exposed similar tensions within the GOP.

"I think the Republican Party in New York is going through a very painful period," says Michael Caputo, a Republican strategist who worked on the Paladino campaign.

"When you're able to turn out two times as many voters for a candidate who had to fight his way onto the ballot like Carl Paladino, you've definitely got a difference of opinion between the rank-and-file and the leadership."

"True conservatism"

Caputo says Paladino galvanized support because he was the true conservative.

Primary voters have questioned Romney's conservatism throughout the primaries, with one candidate after another rising and falling as "the conservative alternative."

Jason McGuire of the socially-conservative New Yorker's Family Research Foundation says Republican leaders should not shy away from social issues.

"The struggle that the GOP is having in New York is that it has not figured out how to secure its base," says McGuire. "It's chasing after a strictly fiscal message. If you try to separate fiscal and social conservatives, Republicans lose."

April 24 will decide what share of New York's 95 delegates agree.