The upstart candidacy of Democrat-turned-Republican Joel A. Giambra has become even more credible.
After trouncing County Executive Gorski in the Independence Party primary and Jeffrey L. Baran in the Republican contest Tuesday, Giambra starts down the road to November propelled by new momentum while Gorski regroups and licks his wounds.
Although Nov. 2 remains seven weeks away, Giambra clearly can claim an early advantage. He topped Gorski by a ratio of almost 2 to 1 for the Independence line and pulled off a stunning 2-to-1 win over Baran in the Republican contest, overcoming behind-the-scenes efforts by the Gorski camp to influence GOP voters.
With most districts reporting, Giambra led Baran 19,450 to 9,505 in the Republican contest. In the Independence matchup, he defeated Gorski, 942 to 523.
The Independence win rewards Giambra -- the Buffalo comptroller -- with a crucial minor party line -- the No. 3 line on the ballot with the ability to attract many nonaligned voters.
But most importantly, Giambra emerges as a credible and a suddenly hot political property -- a key factor in a still-tough fight against Gorski through Nov. 2.
"It's apparent that after 12 years on the road to nowhere, both Republicans and Independence members are very ready for change," Giambra said, claiming his victories as early and successful tests of his campaign message of reducing taxes, creating jobs and "keeping our kids here."
He also said the election results in both parties reflected voter concern about change and about the tone of Gorski's advertising campaign.
"Tonight's election was about change and a referendum on the quality and types of campaigns people in Erie County want to see," Giambra said. "They don't want to see the kind of campaign Dennis Gorski has waged in the past couple of months."
The incumbent put a different spin on the primary.
"It does hurt us a little bit, but let's keep it in perspective," Gorski said. "It's a thousand votes in a county of a million."
But the victory ranks as a huge accomplishment for Giambra because he now can portray himself as the man to beat when turning to potential financial backers. Before Tuesday's contests he faced the prospect of being outspent 2 to 1.
"He's got tremendous wind at his back now," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, the former Erie County GOP chairman. "This gives him tremendous momentum to raise the money he needs to complete his fundamental plan."
And Joseph F. Crangle, former Erie County Democratic chairman, said Gorski must find a way to regroup after a series of perceived negatives: polls showing him substantially behind, negative television ads that some political observers say reek of desperation and now defeats in two primaries in which the Gorski camp invested heavily.
"They did everything they could to win this," Crangle said, referring to Gorski mailings and phone calls to Independence Party members, while lining up key local Independence Party officials and even statewide figure B. Thomas Golisano of Rochester, the party's 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial candidate.
Ditto for the Republican contest, where Gorski lieutenants flatly predicted Baran would win the primary and phoned and sent mailings to GOP households blasting Giambra's performance as city comptroller.
"It's a real setback for them," Crangle said.
At his Cheektowaga headquarters watching the primary returns, the county executive tried to put the best face on a disappointing night. But he could not deny Independence voters had dealt him a blow. He worked hard to put the best face on his landslide defeat.
"I'm not happy about it; I'd be less than honest if I said anything else," Gorski said. "Nobody likes to lose.
Though Gorski pointed to his long experience, he also acknowledged his best guess about the still-new Independence Party had proved wrong.
"I'm a Democrat, I'm a Conservative," he said. "Maybe I was moving into unchartered waters."
Still, nobody is discounting Gorski or his ability to bounce back from setbacks. Political observers point to campaign coffers expected to top $1.5 million, a formidable army of supporters and county workers, and the 120,000 advantage in voter registration that the Democrat will carry into the November election.
Baran was unavailable to comment on Tuesday's event, and Giambra praised him for the tone of his campaign and highlighting many of the same issues. But Giambra also pointed to Gorski's efforts in the GOP primary and said the results were a rejection of the county executive -- even though he wasn't on the ballot.
"The voters who had a chance to vote said no to the failed policies of Dennis Gorski," he said.
Now political observers wonder if or how Gorski will alter his campaign plan after Tuesday's results. But if anyone believes he will cut short the attack ads that have so far characterized his campaign, the county executive late Tuesday set them straight.
While promising to continue to emphasize his accomplishments, he also said he will continue to point out the Giambra record.
"We will also talk about Mr. Giambra's 21-year record of mismanagement and politics as usual at City Hall, his record of exploding city debt, money lost in shoe boxes and health insurance paid to dead people," Gorski said. "That's what elections are all about: comparing what the candidates have done and what they intend to do."
Giambra, who received a congratulatory phone call from Gov. Pataki at 11:20 p.m., said he expects that Gorski will continue to attack him in the general election campaign.
"I think it will continue to be an ugly and nasty campaign of division, deception and defamation," he said. "But I will not be Dennis Gorski's punching bag for the next 50 days."