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It was billed as one of the nation's hottest congressional races -- the liberal labor leader versus the conservatives' king.

But, so far, the colossal clash between Democrat Thomas M. Fricano and incumbent Republican Bill Paxon has yet to materialize -- at least on the all-important airwaves. And while Fricano still promises an intense three-week finale, some are asking where he and his much-anticipated campaign were in the first place.

"Obviously, the name of the game is TV advertising -- especially in this district," said Gerald M. Goldhaber, a University at Buffalo political scientist and pollster. "The only way you can really campaign is by TV, and he hasn't done it."

"They're blowing this thing before they even get in the game," added a local political consultant familiar with congressional campaigns. "Meanwhile, Bill is spending $400,000 or $500,000 so he can stay ahead."

Indeed, Paxon is now in his second round of television commercials with ads aimed at special interests like "big labor." Earlier spots featured his wife, Rep. Susan Molinari of Staten Island, and their baby daughter, Susan.

Those ads were produced, sources say, with the expectation that Fricano also would mount a well-financed television onslaught that at the very least, would "tie down" the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"He would have to have at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars' worth on TV to have a credible chance, and I don't see any sign of it," Goldhaber said. "Paxon has already been out of the box, which makes it even more uphill for Fricano."

Fricano denied that his campaign has lost any steam and promises an aggressive round of television advertising as his effort enters the final three weeks. While he predicted Paxon will have $1 million to spend, Fricano acknowledged that his own $1 million goal probably will not be realized.

Still, he said he expects to have around $600,000 -- more than enough
to mount the first competitive campaign Paxon has faced in years.

"We will be on very shortly," he said. "And when we go on the air, it will be the kind of commercial people pay attention to."

Fricano, regional director of the United Auto Workers, proudly points to the "ground operation" he has built over the past several months centering around literature drops, direct mail, phone banks, and personal appearances.

"I've done the grass-roots stuff," he said. "I go out and meet people and keep this ground operation going. If people want to see what Tom Fricano is all about, they'll have sufficient time to do it."

In his August financial statement to the Federal Election Commission, Fricano reported raising $305,436 and spending $190,986 -- without any television advertising. That prompts some observers to note that while fund raising has worked, the concentration on approaches other than television may dilute his campaign in a district stretching 120 miles from Amherst to Auburn.

"You could spend all the money you want, and as a pollster I say 'thank you very much,' " Goldhaber said. "But at some point you've got to do something with your polling."

And the local political consultant, who asked not to be identified, agreed the Fricano resources appear to be tied up in staff, polling and research.

"They seem to be much more grass-roots oriented than super-duper media people," the consultant said. "So they're squandering away all these funds on people. I don't know if they can do it in three weeks."

The consultant also said the national union, money funding anti-Republican ads in other districts are not appearing on local airwaves -- except against Republican Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr. of Hamburg.

"You don't see Bill Paxon targeted; it's Jack Quinn," the consultant said. "That's the tip-off to me."

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