By JON CAMPBELL
ALBANY -- Despite Rick Santorum's exit from the presidential race, New York Republicans will still play a role in deciding the next president -- just not at the ballot box, a top GOP official said Tuesday.
With the state controlling 95 delegates in the GOP battle, New York Republicans were hoping the its April 24 primary would play a part in deciding the GOP's preferred challenger to President Barack Obama, a Democrat. With his closest competitor dropping out, it all but assured the nomination for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But Santorum may not have stood much of a chance in New York, anyway. A Siena College poll Tuesday found Romney with a 33-point lead over Santorum among Republicans in New York, up from a 15-point gap last month.
State GOP Chairman Ed Cox, who was the New York chairman for John McCain's presidential bid in 2008, said now the party's focus will shift toward tapping into New York's financial and ethnic bases on behalf of Romney.
Statewide, Democrats hold a 2-to-1 enrollment edge over Republicans and voters haven't picked a GOP candidate in a general presidential election since Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984. But the state will be "the most important non-swing state here among the 50 states," Cox said.
"New York is going to be very important to (Romney's) campaign, not because we are a swing state with respect to our electoral votes, but because this is where the financial center with the money is, this is the media center of the United States where the media is, and this is the center for many ethnic groups," Cox said.
Santorum's name will remain on the New York primary ballot, along with Romney and the two other remaining GOP candidates: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Paul and Gingrich didn't fare well in the Siena poll, garnering support from just 11 percent and 6 percent of those surveyed, respectively. Santorum had received 18 percent, according to the poll.
The survey was conducted between April 1 and 3, with 218 Republicans polled. It carried a margin of error of 6.6 percentage points.
Siena pollster Steve Greenberg said Romney's poll numbers would only increase with Santorum's exit from the race. He already had support from 51 percent of New York's likely Republican voters, the poll found.
"I think it's clear that Romney will carry New York, and he will carry it big," Greenberg said. "Before (Tuesday's) announcement, the question was whether Santorum could pick up some delegates in individual congressional districts. Now, I would think that that also seems unlikely."
Even before Santorum's announcement, Romney's New York chairman -- former Rep. Guy Molinari of Staten Island -- said the goal was to sweep the state's 95 delegates.
Under the party's new voting rules, a candidate receives two delegates for each of the 29 congressional districts they win. Thirty-four delegates are awarded if a candidate takes 50 percent of the vote statewide, and one vote each is held by three "superdelegates".
"I want to win every damn district in the state," Molinari said. "In the world of politics, you always shoot to maximize your vote and deliver the whole thing, and that's what I would love to do."
Cox -- one of the state's superdelegates -- said his formal endorsement is "certainly going to come down the pike."
"(Romney) is going to be our nominee," he said. "So there's no doubt about that, and we're all going to be working hard for Mitt Romney to be the next president of the United States."
State Democratic Committee chairman Jay Jacobs predicted that any buzz that Republicans may get from the New York primary would dissipate by the November elections.
"New York is solidly blue. It's going to go solidly for Barack Obama," he said.