updated 9/22/2009 5:56:44 PM ET 2009-09-22T21:56:44

As New York Gov. David Paterson's political vitality fades and a court decision over his lieutenant governor choice threatens to weaken his chief rival for the 2010 gubernatorial nomination, Republicans sense a hole opening in the Democrats' wall of invincibility in the state and are seizing the day.

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The possibility that Republicans could recapture a governor's seat in one of the nation's bluest states represents a turnaround for a state party that, 10 months ago, was nearly irrelevant after losing its last bastion of power, the state Senate. And it has implications for the Democrats' tenuous filibuster-killing hold on the U.S. Senate.

Republican former Congressman Rick Lazio, who lost out to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2000 Senate race and is now running for governor, seized on the cacophony Tuesday to underscore his bid. And a day before, former Republican Gov. George Pataki said he was considering whether to run for U.S. Senate against Paterson-appointed Kirsten Gillibrand, who replaced Clinton when she became secretary of state.

"There is no question right now that the political soap opera of New York politics centers around the Democrats," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll. "This gives great fodder to the Republicans, and the Republicans are smartly taking advantage of that."

President Barack Obama warmly praised Attorney General Andrew Cuomo during a New York event Monday, while blandly acknowledging Paterson. And aboard Air Force One on Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't deny that the president sent word that Paterson should drop out of the 2010 race so Cuomo could lead a stronger Democratic ticket.

On Tuesday, Paterson shot back.

"I have had conversations with the White House," he said as he prepared to address a growing $2.1 billion deficit. "I am concerned about the Democratic Party. But I'm also concerned about my ability to govern."

He told reporters he understood the president's interest in New York's 2010 Democratic ticket because "they haven't exactly been able to govern in the first year of their administration the way other administrations have."

'You don't give up'
Paterson appeared to blame Republican partisanship for Obama's inability to attract even a single GOP vote at times in Congress.

Despite the chorus suggesting that Paterson quit, the governor declared he's still "clearly running," with the same resolve that led to a ruling Tuesday by the state's highest court affirming his right to appoint a lieutenant governor.

Much of official Albany — led by Cuomo's quick and unsolicited legal opinion — had said Paterson violated the state Constitution when he made the surprise move to end Senate gridlock this summer.

"You don't give up," Paterson told reporters at Columbia University. "You don't give up just because people tell you what they think is going to happen. You don't give up because people tell you who's running and who's not before they ever announce to do it."

It's the kind of public infighting Republicans are cheering on.

GOP seizes opportunity
Lazio, in the state capital to reiterate his campaign for governor, said Albany "overspends, overtaxes, and overreaches. It is polarized, unresponsive and unaccountable. It has destroyed rather than created jobs. It caters to special interests and not the citizens ... and (is) probably the worst state government in America. It is a disgrace. It is an embarrassment."

Tuesday's Siena College poll found nearly six in 10 New Yorkers felt the state was headed in the wrong direction.

On Monday, Pataki agreed. He's considering several opportunities, including running against Gillibrand, the Democrat Paterson appointed after a messy selection process to replace Clinton.

The Siena poll Tuesday found Paterson's job performance at 18 percent among voters polled, with three-quarters of all voters finding him "well intentioned but ineffective." The survey also found Paterson would get crushed by Cuomo or former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but would narrowly beat Lazio.

Cuomo continues to win all potential matchups, according to the poll, which questioned 792 registered voters from Sept. 13 to 17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Pataki on Monday raised the specter of the Democrats' biggest fear: Giuliani for governor.

"I do believe he's interested, and I think that's a good thing for the state of New York," said Pataki, a close ally to the former Republican mayor.

Giuliani has declined to make his intentions known but has said several times that he has ruled nothing out.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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