The New York Republican Rick Lazio emerged as the front-runner yesterday to replace Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as candidate for the US Senate after Mr Giuliani's announcement that he has prostatecancer.
Mr Lazio, a Congressman who campaigned for the party's nomination, would be the obvious choice to step into the mayor's shoes as candidate, and he had said he was ready to run before the mayor disclosed his illness on Thursday.
"If I can make a fair case to Republicans in New York to get the nomination I will be back in this race,'' he said earlier this month. But neither Mr Lazio, nor the President's wife, Hillary, the Democratic candidate, tried to make political capital from Mr Giuliani's news. Both issued statements of sympathy as the campaign temporarily went into the deep freeze.
There was continued speculation yesterday that the mayor would still throw his hat into the ring at the Republican nominating convention on 30 May. He told reporters he made the announcement only after a newsman found he was entering Mount Sinai Medical Center for follow-up tests.
Mr Giuliani said yesterday he would lighten his campaign schedule over the next week.
The New York Senate race always promised to be one of the great American landmark political events of the year.
No one in the city or the state is neutral about the two candidates pitted against each other in this gladiatorial contest: Mayor Giuliani, the combative figure credited with cleaning up the city or turning it into a fascist state; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, feminist idol and victim or scheming harpie, depending on your viewpoint.
But Mr Giuliani's cancer throws it wide open, at a time when there were already questions about whether he was the best man to fight the First Lady.
Mr Giuliani is a polarising figure, credited by his supporters with cleaning up the city, cracking down on crime first as a district attorney and then as mayor since 1993. He has a brusque and rude manner, confronting his enemies directly. But his tough "zero-tolerance" policies have also earned him plenty of adversaries. The police killings of several unarmed black men have sparked allegations of racism and police abuses.
The mayor does not shoot from the hip; he steadies the weapon and fires until the magazine is empty. After immigration agents seized Elian Gonzalez last week, Mr Giuliani said the government had "trampled the wishes of his mother this morning with guns and with storm troopers".
Mrs Clinton said: "The mayor's inflammatory and divisive rhetoric is part of a pattern he has engaged in for quite some time."
His personal life is opaque. Mr Giuliani's wife, with whom he is no longer close, is an actress, Donna Hanover. She announced last week that she will join the cast of The Vagina Monologues, a controversial play by Eve Ensler, a friend of Mrs Clinton.
Some in the party had already suspected Mr Giuliani might not run. The mayor, who is not officially a candidate, had still obtained $19m in campaign contributions - the most of any senator in the country ahead of the November vote.
But he lost support after the police shootings and other incidents, which dented his image in the state, and Mr Lazio had suggested that the party should dump Mr Giuliani.
Mrs Clinton has shored up her position in the state after a weak early performance, and she moved this week to discount reports that she wants the Senate seat only as a platform for a run at the White House herself. "I am going to serve my six-year term as senator," she said. "I owe it to the people of New York."
The mayor was on 45 per cent in the most recent poll to Mrs Clinton's 44 per cent, but that is statistically insignificant. Mrs Clinton is struggling to reach the 50 per cent mark because of a lack of support among women voters and residual problems linked to the behaviour of her husband in the White House. Any less well-known Republican would face a hard task, both in winning electoral support and in garnering the massive funds needed to beat the First Lady.
The mayor's withdrawal might mean a less interesting race; but it could leave the way clear for the President's wife to gain public office, prolonging the Clinton political dynasty bya further six years, and more.