WEST ISLIP, N.Y. - Rep. Rick Lazio made it official today: With New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani out of the race, the congressman is going up against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and running for U.S. Senate from New York.
''The wait and uncertainty is over,'' Lazio told a crowd gathered at Long Island's West Islip High School to hear the expected announcement.
The Long Island moderate took himself out of the running last year at Gov. George Pataki's request to make way for the better-known Rudolph Giuliani. After the New York City mayor announced Friday he was quitting the race because of prostate cancer, Lazio said he would step into the race.
''As a former prosecutor, local legislator and U.S. congressman, I believe I am the strongest Republican candidate and the Republican who is best able to unite our party and defeat Hillary Clinton in November,'' Lazio said.
''You can tell from my accent that I'm a life long New Yorker,'' he said, taking a swipe at Clinton as he made the announcement official today.
Appearing on CNN's ''Larry King Live,'' Pataki said New York Republicans had plenty of qualified potential replacement candidates, but ''clearly the best would be Rick Lazio.'' And Giuliani said he had called Lazio and pledged his ''help and support'' should he become the GOP candidate.
This morning on NBC's ''Today,'' Rep. Peter King, another Long Island Republican who had expressed interest in a Senate bid, said he would not seek the nomination.
''The last thing I want to do is divide the party,'' he said. ''I'm proud to support Rick Lazio. ... I think he'll be a great senator.''
Lazio said he was flattered by the endorsement. ''I'm delighted by it, and very appreciative,'' he said.
The state party meets May 30 to pick its nominee, although other hopefuls could challenge that choice in a September primary.
Lazio has raised $3.5 million, compared to Clinton's $12 million. Under campaign financing laws, the Giuliani campaign, which raised $20 million, has a variety of options - ranging from investing the money to finance a later campaign, to giving it to charity, to finding ways to help finance his successor in the Senate contest.
Lazio, 43, is regarded on Capitol Hill as an energetic lawmaker, despite being largely unknown and untested outside his Suffolk County district.
He is a pro-death penalty Roman Catholic and while he supports abortion rights generally, he opposes Medicaid funding and ''partial birth'' abortions, which makes him palatable to the party's more conservative wing.
His pro-environment record, support of gun control measures and attention to issues like breast cancer seem certain to appeal to the soccer moms the first lady is courting.
Yet Lazio is fiscally conservative. Asked by Republican House leaders this year to take the lead on a minimum wage increase, Lazio pushed to include tax breaks for businesses that made the package palatable to his more conservative GOP colleagues.
But Democrats are almost certain to seize on Lazio's ties to former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his support of the Contract With America.
A Congressional Quarterly study found that Lazio voted with Gingrich's controversial Contract With America 94 percent of the time. And Lazio still has friendly ties with the more conservative members who lead the House, such as House Majority Leader Richard Armey and Whip Tom DeLay.