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Third Parties Back Clinton, Lazio

Hillary Rodham Clinton, labeled a far-left liberal by critics, accepted the backing of New York's Liberal Party on Saturday while her Republican Senate rival Rick Lazio, dubbed a right-wing conservative by the first lady, embraced the Conservative Party.

Out from under the shadow of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the leaders of the Liberal Party met at a Manhattan hotel to bless Clinton's candidacy.

"Being a New Yorker is a matter of spirit, not a matter of origin," said Martin Begun, a Liberal party vice-chair who attended the meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel.

He cited famed New Yorkers who, like Clinton, were born out of state, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose Democrat seat she is seeking.

Billing themselves the nation's longest existing third party, the Liberals have in the past backed Giuliani and other candidates of various political affiliations.

"I respect the history of this party," said Clinton, standing next to party boss Ray Harding, who called himself "a close friend" of Giuliani until recently Clinton's main opponent.

Later Saturday, the state's Conservative Party leadership handed its backing to the little-known congressman from Long Island at a nominating convention being held at an Albany hotel. Only one member dissented.

The developments could spell the difference in a close race. By the numbers, the advantage would appear to go to Lazio, who became the GOP's candidate after the New York City mayor withdrew from the race last month to battle prostate cancer.

The Conservative Party had 171,496 members while the Liberal Party had 92,074 members as of March, according to the latest figures from the state Board of Elections.

More important may be the votes the parties can produce at the polls. In losing his bid for a fourth Senate term in 1998, Republican Alfonse D'Amato collected more than 250,000 votes on the Conservative Party line. Democratic winner Charles Schumer nabbed just over 50,000 votes on the Liberal line.

The path was cleared for Clinton to get the Liberal Party nod after Giuliani quit the Senate race. One of Giuliani's closest political advisers is Liberal Party leader Raymond Harding. He quickly lined up with Clinton after Giuliani withdrew from the contest.

Giuliani's withdrawal from the race also opened the way for the Republican and Conservative parties to restore their traditional partnership in statewide races. Long had refused to get behind Giuliani because of the mayor's strong support for abortion rights and his closeness to the Liberal Party.

While Lazio has said he is an abortion rights supporter, he has repeatedly voted to cut off federal Medicaid money to pay for poor women's abortions and favors a ban on what critics call "partial-birth abortion." That was enough to win Long's support.

No Republican seeking statewide office in New York has won without Conservative Party support snce 1974. Conversely, no Democrat has been elected governor or U.S. senator in New York without Liberal Party backing since it was founded more than 50 years ago.

Unlike other states, New York allows major party candidates to count votes they receive on third-party ballot lines.