ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — An influential Republican-Conservative leader endorsed GOP designee Rick Lazio over tea party-aligned challenger Carl Paladino on Tuesday in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

John Faso, the Republican and Conservative candidate for governor in 2006, had endorsed Steve Levy, the Democratic Suffolk County executive who had sought the GOP nomination but has since withdrawn.

Faso said only Lazio has the character, integrity and ability to fix what Faso calls the mess in Albany.

The announcement by Faso, a former Assembly minority leader who has since become a leading voice among conservative Republicans, came during a critical fundraising week for Lazio.

Paladino, however, didn’t back off in the face of Faso’s effort to unify the Republican party against the better-financed and more popular Democratic candidate, Andrew Cuomo.

“Carl likes and respects John Faso,” said Michael Caputo, spokesman for Paladino, the millionaire Buffalo developer. “When his exercise in primary futility is over, we look forward to working with him to defeat Andrew Cuomo.”

Cuomo had issued a subpoena for Faso in an investigation of a pay-to-play pension fund scandal, the New York Daily News reported in May, noting that the subpoena came shortly after Faso’s political action committee released an ad critical of Cuomo.

In a lengthy letter to members of the Republican and Conservative parties, Faso sought to link Cuomo, riding high in the polls, with former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, another Democratic attorney general who dominated in the polls through his 2006 election only to resign in 2008 in a prostitution scandal.

“Just like Spitzer, Cuomo will say anything that is popular now to get elected,” Faso wrote. “Haven’t we learned our lesson?”

Faso is seeking to unite Republican and Conservative voters around Lazio, who has the endorsements of leaders from both parties but is being strongly challenged by Paladino. His successful petition drive forced a Republican primary scheduled for September.

Recent polls show Paladino on the rise at Lazio’s expense. Financial filings due Friday will show if Lazio has been able to improve what so far has been poor fundraising. Paladino has committed to spending $10 million of his own money and is closely allied with billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, the western New York entrepreneur who has run for governor and given money to what he considers reform candidates.

Faso said he respects Paladino, but the Buffalo developer has made “too many missteps that can be used against him.” Lazio referred to offensive e-mails that Paladino forwarded and some of his blunt, conservative comments. Paladino has said those incidents show he isn’t a career politician or politically correct, but a true outsider.

(Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Watch & Listen LIVE