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HIGGINS DECLARES VICTORY, BUT NAPLES WON'T CONCEDE

Brian M. Higgins rode his pro-Democrat, pro-union, pro-middle class message to apparent victory Tuesday in a congressional race watched by the rest of the nation.

His opponent, however, refused to concede.

Higgins, a state lawmaker from South Buffalo, tallied 137,778 votes, or 50.8 percent, and claimed victory in his battle against Republican Nancy A. Naples, a race dominated by the national political parties and tainted by their negative attack ads.

"This is a win for the good guys," Higgins said Tuesday night as hundreds of supporters celebrated at the Buffalo Irish Center in South Buffalo. "And it's not because of the campaign over the past four months. It's what I've done over the past 12 years."

Naples, who finished with 133,693 votes, or 49.2 percent, declared it too early to concede and indicated she may ask for a recount.

"We're going to keep working," Naples told her supporters Tuesday night. "We will check every vote until we know where we are."

Early this morning, Higgins declared victory.

"This was a hard-fought election, and I am gratified to have come out on top," Higgins said in a statement shortly before 5 a.m. "It's clear that the people of this area have voted for change -- for new economic policies and for representation that puts middle-class families first."

The winner will replace popular Republican Jack F. Quinn, who shocked his own party this year by announcing his retirement from Congress.

In the other marquee local race, the region's most powerful Republican, Rep. Thomas J. Reynolds of Clarence, beat back a well-financed challenge from local manufacturer Jack Davis to win a fourth term in the House.

The region's other congressional winners -- nine-term Democrat Louise Slaughter and Republican State Sen. Randy Kuhl -- means the local delegation will become truly bipartisan, two Democrats and two Republicans.

Of the four races, the Higgins-Naples contest drew the attention and financial backing of the two major political parties, each intent on taking control of what many saw as a swing seat in Congress. Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 73,000 in the district that stretches from Buffalo to Chautauqua County.

"I followed my gut," Higgins said of his campaign strategy. "I don't read speeches. I never do. It always comes from my heart and my head. We got back to that, and I think, over the past 30 days, that resonated with people."

From the day Higgins and Naples announced their candidacies, the race was fueled by money, staff and advertising generated by the national parties.

Over time, the radio and TV ads turned more and more negative, and voters at times seemed fed up with the constant barrage of attacks.

"They really didn't matter," said Matt Gibbons, 27, outside a polling place in Cheektowaga. "When one would put up an ad, you could predict the other (candidate) would put up another one."

Gibbons voted for Naples but his wife, Gina, also 27, voted for Higgins.

"I just liked him and what he stands for," she said. "I liked his presence."

While Naples ran as an independent Republican, stressing her watchdog role as Erie County comptroller, Higgins campaigned as a traditional Democrat.

Everywhere he went, every chance he got, Higgins portrayed Naples as an ally of President Bush and an enemy of organized labor and the middle class.

Naples countered by linking Higgins to higher state taxes and late state budgets.

26th District

Reynolds, a Republican House leader with close ties to Bush, won another term by tallying more than 144,102 votes, or 56 percent, in a district that's two-to-one Republican.

His Democratic challenger, Jack Davis, owner of a small manufacturing company in Akron, received 114,970 votes, or 44 percent.

While most experts, Republican and Democrat, expected Reynolds to win, Davis waged an aggressive, well-financed campaign that focused on free trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs upstate.

"He's been damaged," Davis said of Reynolds on Tuesday night. "I was on a mission to convert the voters."

28th District

Voters in Slaughter's earmuff-shaped district, which stretches from Buffalo to Rochester and is two-to-one Democrat, rewarded the veteran lawmaker with a 10th two-year term in the House.

Slaughter, the local delegation's most senior member, tallied 145,109 votes, or 72 percent, to defeat Republican newcomer Michael Laba and Independence Party candidate Francina Cartonia.

Laba finished with 50,152 votes, or 25 percent, while Cartonia received 5,183 votes, or 3 percent.

Armed with a healthly campaign chest, Slaughter outspent her two challengers by more than 15 to 1 while stressing her leadership and seniority in the House and her record of bringing home federal money for the region.

29th District

Republican John R. Kuhl, a 24-year veteran of the State Legislature, won the right to replace fellow Republican Amo Houghton, who's retiring after 18 years in Congress. Kuhl beat Democrat Samara Barend by tallying 127,817 votes, or 49 percent, in the sprawling Southern Tier district.

Barend, a 27-year-old community activist and graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, received 103,145 votes, or 41 percent, in a campaign that became bitter toward the end.

Early on, Barend focused on Kuhl's record in Albany, blaming him for a system that produced 20 late budgets in a row.

Kuhl, 62, countered by emphasizing his alliance with President Bush on everything from the war in Iraq to continuing tax cuts, an appealing message in a district with 65,000 more Republicans than Democrats.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com and plakamp@buffnews.com

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