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LOW-KEY CALLARD PLUGS AWAY AGAINST WELL-HEELED LAFALCE

Few candidates could argue with David B. Callard's observation that his road to Congress is a bumpy one.

Chugging along in his 1987 "Callard for Congress" school bus, the Orleans County legislator and former Medina banker is rocked and jolted every day by potholes -- and the powerful advantages of incumbent Democrat John J. LaFalce.

But the bumps and turns in the road haven't deterred this low-key campaigner from pursuing his lifelong dream to serve in Congress. Already, he has brushed aside some powerful figures on his way to the Republican nomination.

Now LaFalce and his 22 years of incumbency don't faze him either.

"This effort is proving to be a striking contrast from all the other campaigns in the Buffalo area," he said on a recent campaign swing through the Tonawandas. "I'm a common, ordinary citizen so strongly convicted in my beliefs that I would quit a highly successful career to run a race for what I believe."

No one -- especially his opponent -- questions Callard's commitment or his integrity. But many wonder how a Republican maverick with little name recognition or support outside his home turf can take on such an entrenched incumbent.

Consider these drawbacks:

His latest report to the Federal Election Commission showed a mere $19,830 in his campaign account, compared with LaFalce's $578,667 -- almost guaranteeing his absence from the all-important television airwaves (though he is stating his case on radio).

His effort has generated little enthusiasm among most of Erie County's Republican leadership, who are still lamenting the withdrawal of their original choice -- Erie County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples.

Though he boasts of a significant "grass roots" campaign, he has comparatively few volunteers and little contact with reporters. His first press release in five months arrived at The Buffalo News a few days ago, and it is expected he will receive exposure in few debate or forum settings.

Still, Callard has proven he can succeed through sheer determination. While Erie County's GOP leaders groomed Ms. Naples to take on LaFalce last spring, Callard quietly lined up the organizations in Monroe, Orleans and Niagara counties. Though Ms. Naples cited personal reasons for her May withdrawal, several sources say she recognized Callard's strength in the district's more conservative areas and opted against a primary.

Now he enters the final stages of a campaign that differs little from previous efforts against LaFalce, emphasizing familiar themes: LaFalce has been there too long, he's too liberal, and he's out of touch with his district.

"To be a representative of people you have to be in touch with people, and I feel John LaFalce is out of touch with his district," he said. "All you have to do is look at his vote against welfare reform."

Like other opponents in the past, Callard uses LaFalce's long tenure in Congress as a springboard for his campaign. He stresses term limits, not only to curb long careers like LaFalce's, but also to get back to basics.

"The concept of the forefathers was of citizen legislators; people who would serve part time, then come home and live under the laws they made, as opposed to career politicians who earn very high salaries and huge pensions," he said. "I have no intention of living the rest of my life in Washington."

But Callard says no other issue illustrates his claim better than LaFalce's opposition to ending welfare as an entitlement. The idea of restricting benefits is backed wherever he campaigns across the 29th District, he said.

"As I recall, he said most mainline Protestants and Catholics were against welfare reform, while evangelicals favored it out of a right-wing political agenda," Collard said. "He even accused evangelical leaders of being false prophets. "I was surprised he approached it that way," he said. "Most working-class Americans -- regardless of their faith -- favor some form of welfare reform."

LaFalce's Democratic president, he points out, signed the welfare reform legislation. "To that extent," he said, "John LaFalce has proven to be more liberal than the president himself."

It's not just welfare. The incumbent's support of the Clinton administration's failed health-care initiative demonstrates a penchant for "increasing the size of the bureaucracy," he maintains. He accuses LaFalce of voting for tax increases and for allowing the deficit to whirl out of control throughout his congressional career.

"The Democratic majority in Congress had every opportunity to balance the budget, but it wasn't even a consideration until the Republican Congress introduced it in 1995," he said.

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