A poll released today sent shock waves through New York's gubernatorial race, showing surging Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino within striking distance of popular Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo leads Paladino among likely voters, 49 percent to 43 percent, with 7 percent undecided, the Quinnipiac University poll found. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Cuomo, the son of former three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, appeared not to be alarmed by Paladino's surge, shrugging it off with "a grain of salt." He tried to deflect the attention by accepting an endorsement from New York City's popular Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Cuomo had long been expected to win the race in a walk. He has enjoyed high approval ratings, and Democrats have an overwhelming registration edge over Republicans in New York State.
Many Democrats believed Cuomo's chances only improved when Paladino – a maverick businessman from Buffalo toting a lot of political baggage – unexpectedly trounced former Rep. Rick Lazio in last week's Republican primary.
But the new poll makes clear that the clamor for change so evident elsewhere in the nation this year has spread to liberal, Democratic-leaning New York.
Likely voters in the Quinnipiac survey called "change" their No. 1 priority. That is a boost for Paladino, who has never held elective office, won the GOP primary with an "I'm mad as hell" motto, and has vowed to clean up the state capital, Albany, with "a baseball bat."
Just 10 percent of voters in the Quinnipiac poll consider "right experience" as the quality that matters most in determining their vote, a troubling sign for Cuomo.
"The question was whether Carl Paladino would get a bounce from his big Republican primary victory. The answer is, 'Yes.' He's within shouting distance and – you can count on it – he will be shouting," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"Cuomo might be a victim of his own excess. Politicians and polls have depicted him so relentlessly as a sure thing he might be a victim of the 'throw the bums out' attitude that hits incumbents in this angry year," Carroll said.
Paladino has relentlessly attacked Cuomo since winning the Republican primary, calling him "Prince Andrew" and "the entitled one" and even wondering if Cuomo has the "cajones" to debate.
Andrew Cuomo Didn't Believe Carl Paladino Was a Serious Challenge
Cuomo has maintained his Rose Garden strategy and refused to fire back. Team Cuomo had believed that Paladino was not a serious threat and that going head-to-head against him would only elevate the Republican's standing.
At a news conference today, Cuomo largely kept to that strategy, saying he takes the poll results "with a grain of salt."
"My opponent has an increase, which I think is to be expected. He had a primary win last week. He got a lot of press. The amount of press you get often shows up in polls. But the campaign has just started," he said.
Cuomo spoke after accepting the endorsement from Bloomberg, an independent. Bloomberg said voter anger was understandable, but that Cuomo was the better choice.
"New Yorkers are angry with Albany," said Bloomberg, "but anger is not a governing strategy. We need real change - we need new strategies, we need independent leadership."
Despite trying to remain above the fray today, Cuomo will feel pressure to change tactics and begin tapping his huge campaign war chest to go on the offensive, independent strategists said.
The poll found that 31 percent of voters do not know enough about Paladino to have an opinion about him, presenting an opportunity for the Cuomo campaign. By highlighting some of the controversies surrounding Paladino, Cuomo campaign can begin to fill in the blanks,
It has been revealed that Paladino has forwarded racist and pornographic e-mails to friends. And he once referred to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is an Orthodox Jew, this way: "If I could ever describe a person who would fit the bill of an anti-Christ or a Hitler, this guy is it." Paladino later explained he was not a bigot. "I don't have an anti-Semitic bone in my body," he said.
The Quinnipiac survey did not include Lazio, who will appear on the ballot under the banner of the Conservative Party. Lazio has not said if he will actively campaign. If he does, he would likely draw more support from Paladino than from Cuomo.