Buffalo's Denise E. O'Donnell doesn't have the easiest job running for state attorney general this year.
She's not nearly as well known as her downstate competition. Her major rivals boast of far richer campaign funds. And most of the state's Democratic hierarchy has lined up behind the two "stars" of the race -- former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and former New York City Public Advocate Mark J. Green.
But O'Donnell, a former U.S. attorney for Western New York, is beginning to be noticed. As the once-crowded field of hopefuls dwindles, several factors are contributing to her prospects:
* The departure of former lieutenant governor candidate Leecia R. Eve of Buffalo from the statewide scene, after Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Eliot L. Spitzer picked Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson of Harlem as his running mate, makes O'Donnell the only upstate possibility left for the ticket, which traditionally seeks geographic balance.
* She is also the only woman on the ticket, which could be dominated by Jewish men from Manhattan.
* The Democratic State Convention being held in Buffalo in late May will call attention to the need for an upstater on the ballot.
* She continues to pick up endorsements from such prominent Democrats as former Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who ran for governor in 2002.
"I looked at all of the candidates -- all of them are excellent people, and all of them have much to recommend [them]," McCall said. "But only Denise O'Donnell is a career prosecutor with the skill set it's going to take to be an effective advocate for the people of New York."
Other top names, such as former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, O'Donnell's former Justice Department boss, have hosted fund-raising events for her.
It all leads Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan to observe that, while she remains an underdog, she is making major progress.
"She's highly regarded not only as the only woman and the only upstater in the race, but as the best lawyer in the race and the only one who's prosecuted crimes," he said. "She's up against stiff competition but taking on the competition and functioning at a very high level."
Just about every poll shows Cuomo and then Green dominating the field, with less success among other candidates like O'Donnell, Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, Democratic activist Charlie King and former Clinton administration official Sean P. Maloney.
But O'Donnell thinks that after Eve's withdrawal, traditional Democratic efforts to balance the ticket geographically, ethnically and in gender will prod the convention to at least afford her the 25 percent support needed to qualify for the September primary ballot.
"Most people will want a ticket that reflects New York," she said. "That's what has changed as far as media focus in New York City goes."
O'Donnell reported only $589,000 in her latest campaign finance filing with the state Board of Elections, compared with $4.6 million for Cuomo, $1.7 million for Green, $1.4 million for King, $1.1 million for Brodsky and $812,000 for Maloney. Most observers believe raising the necessary funds for a statewide campaign constitutes her major problem.
But she claims to have raised the most money in upstate New York and to be making progress with women's groups, the legal community and abortion rights groups.
"We just feel we're now making a lot more inroads," she said.
O'Donnell, who is married to State Supreme Court Justice John E. O'Donnell, said her campaign centers on being the only prosecutor in the race. She talks about assisting in the Oklahoma City bombing case and the James Kopp murder case or about supervising the rehabilitation of the once mob-infested Laborers Local 210 union.
"The key to victory for us is focusing on the prime voters who are attracted to a message of qualifications and experience," she said, adding she is now more hopeful than ever of receiving the 25 percent at the convention to make the ballot.
"I'm hopeful the Democratic Party will be receptive to taking this to the voters in a primary," she said.
But she said she will be ready to circulate designating petitions the day after the convention if need be.