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It is only 8:30 a.m., and already Rep. Bill Paxon is inside Eastman Kodak's landmark headquarters, hobnobbing with top managers of one of the world's business behemoths.

One of the most influential leaders of the Republican majority in Congress, Paxon listens intently as Kodak executives lay out concerns about government regulation, union influence in politics and access to world markets.

He is comfortable in this ultimate corporate setting, and these captains of industry are comfortable with him. His mantra of less government intrusion into every aspect of American life -- especially the free marketplace -- is received with nods of approval, smiles and some very enthusiastic applause.

"Clearly, the Republican majority in Congress' view is that economic decisions that create jobs, opportunity and wages should occur in these rooms rather than rooms in Washington, D.C.," he says.

Now, Paxon is taking that message beyond the boardroom into the suburbs and small towns of the vast 27th Congressional District. He is betting that Democratic union leader Thomas M. Fricano's strong challenge -- with its well-financed "anti-extremist" appeal -- will fare no better in this overwhelmingly Republican turf than with weaker opponents of the past.

With 372 town meetings and 238 visits to farms, factories and small businesses logged over his eight-year congressional career, Paxon says he knows his nine-county district better than anyone -- especially Fricano.

"They're not standing up and saying they oppose a balanced-budget amendment, or saying we should raise taxes, or saying we shouldn't change the welfare system we have," he said. "That's the fundamental flaw he's shown from the day he was chosen as the candidate. His personal anger at the common-sense reforms we've made blind him to the realities of the conservative electorate of this district."

Indeed, Paxon stands at the forefront of the Republican revolution in Congress. At 42, he is already a 19-year veteran of elective politics and is a top lieutenant to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., on such lofty national-agenda items as the Contract With America.

As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he served as a principal architect of the Republican takeover in Congress and thinks that the GOP momentum of 1994 will continue indefinitely -- despite indications of a big Democratic presidential year.

"The country is becoming a Republican nation," he said, "and it will continue to be, barring some unforeseen event. The reason we will gain seats in the House is about political fundamentals. The (redistricting) lines drawn in '92 were finally fair lines, and if we had fair lines before, we would have won in the early to mid-'80s."

But Fricano has forced Paxon to defend his close relationship with the House speaker, exploiting Gingrich's low standing in most polls. While blasting Paxon's support of moves to reduce Medicare spending or end welfare as a federal entitlement, Fricano follows the national Democratic script of stamping "Gingrich" all over his opponent.

So be it, says Paxon.

"It is the most legislatively successful agenda any Congress has ever had in my lifetime," he says proudly. "We forgot all the things we're doing, we've done so much.

"The proof will be in the votes on Election Day," he continued. "We (Republicans) will be re-elected, Newt will be speaker, and we'll gain seats. I rest my case."

Many have called Paxon a political natural -- and he shows it, schmoozing with $100 donors at his Hyatt Regency Rochester fund-raising event. Here he lays out his conservative agenda to the Rochester Republicans, who, since redistricting, are added to his natural Erie County base.

His campaign material builds on that conservative appeal, slamming Fricano for a long history of "liberal" associations, ranging from backing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's health-care plans to supporting auto-import quotas.

"I admire Tom for being steadfast in his beliefs, but he's a passionate liberal who believes government has the answer for everything," Paxon said. "I believe we have a great country in spite of government. And that's clearly the difference between us."

Paxon's long career in elective office, buttressed by his strong conservative stands, is proving a major Fricano target. The Democrat constantly derides Paxon for never having held a private-sector job; supporting himself since graduation from college as a county legislator, a state assemblyman or a congressman. How does he justify it?

"It's simple," Paxon replied. "I have a performance test every 24 months. I have to perform or I lose my job."

Paxon remains a strong term-limits supporter, advocating 12 years as the maximum service in the House. But he also says he may not hold himself to that limit. He would reach the 12-year mark in 2000.

"I have not said I would leave after 12 years, but I'm certainly not staying forever," he said.

On the surface, anyway, Fricano's challenge and the estimated $600,000 he will spend have not caused major problems. Some say Paxon will end up spending $1 million in the district's expensive Buffalo-Rochester-Syracuse television market.

But raising and spending that kind of money is not a problem.

Paxon disputes the notion that, at the very least, Fricano's effort has "tied him down" to his own district -- making him raise and spend money and diverting energy away from his national duties.

"The last cycle we raised $30 million, this year we'll raise a lot more than that," he said. "Last cycle, we ran candidates in all but 12 districts, this year all but two. I've been able to do exactly what I wanted to do as chairman of the (Republican Congressional Committee)."

Still, Paxon acknowledges that Fricano has energized his congressional career with a serious challenge. If nothing else, his opponent has caused Paxon to strengthen his already passionate conservatism, while providing a bully pulpit to spread that message.

"To his credit, Tom has stood by his positions," Paxon said. "And that's good. Because now the voters get a real choice."

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