Gristedes magnate John Catsimatidis said he was at lunch last month with Giuliani, a longtime friend and former supporter, when Giuliani admitted he doesn't think Lhota — the candidate he's backing in 2013 — really has a chance.
“Rudy sat there… and says, ‘Lhota can’t win.’ Eyeball to eyeball,” Catsimatidis told DNAinfo.com New York in a wide-ranging interview at his west side office Thursday.
“Because a pure Republican in this city can’t win," he allegedly said.
Giuliani, whose office said he was not available for comment, has been one of the driving forces behind Lhota's candidacy, touting the former MTA chief in a series of interviews and reportedly building support behind the scenes.
But Tony Carbonetti, Giuliani's former chief of staff who was at the lunch at FRESCO by Scotto in East Midtown, said that Catsimatidis had misinterpreted Giuliani's message.
“I have no recollection of Rudy saying anything different from what he said publicly," Carbonetti said. “It's a long shot for any Republican.”
Giuliani told NY1 in early January, roughly the same time as the lunch, that he felt Lhota would be "very good for the city." But he kept expectations low.
"I told him very directly it's hard, very difficult. Electing a Republican is always a long shot," Giuliani said, pointing to his slim margin of victory in 1993 and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's in 2001.
"The reality is, I think it would be very good for the campaign and very good for the city because I think Joe will raise the level of the debate," Giuliani said then.
Catsimatidis, who officially launched his bid for mayor this week at City Hall, is hoping his history as a longtime Clinton Democrat-turned Romney Republican will be more appealing in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1.
"I like Joe Lhota. He’s a very decent person — nice person. But a pure Republican can’t win in this city,” Catsimatidis said.
Lhota, whose spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment, has also tried to paint himself as a progressive "Goldwater" Republican who supports same-sex marriage and legalizing pot.
Giuliani has known Catsimatidis for decades, and publicly sung his praises as recently as November 2011, when Catsimatidis was mulling entering the race.
“He's got the experience to be mayor,” Giuliani told Crain's New York Business, reportedly citing his financial savvy and ability to lead a multi-billion-dollar business.
“People will underestimate him as a candidate. But they will be making a mistake if they underestimate him."