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Chris Collins builds his campaign

You may recall that local voters will elect a new county executive this year, even if the campaign so far ranks somewhere below "big yawn" on the excitement meter.

Indeed, the term "quiet phase" takes on a whole new meaning in a campaign that has yet to utter a peep.

Just don't suggest any of that, however, to Republican Chris Collins. Remember him? While Democrats Paul Clark, Jim Keane and Jim Griffin are at least stirring about, Collins is lying low in appearance only -- a GOP strategy to let the warring Democrats pulverize each other before entering the fray.

Collins insists he's in hyperactive mode, raising the money he'll need to compete in an overwhelmingly Democratic county. While he emphasizes running Erie County like a business, he's reaching out to business contacts to tally the minimum of $1 million necessary to run a countywide campaign.

His stealth campaign is bringing him just about everywhere.

"I'm out at the police clambake in Cheektowaga, then to a fund-raising lunch, then over to some parade," he said a few days ago. "Practically every night in the week, I'm somewhere."

Collins is embracing this effort with the enthusiasm of a kid at the circus. He was criticized for a stand-off campaign style back in 1998 when he took on Democratic Congressman John LaFalce, but that all seems in the past. He is now eager to engage voters like the bystander in a Memorial Day parade who loudly questioned what he'll do about the county budget.

"Reduce it and balance it," Collins shouted back with a businesslike frankness that eludes most pols.

That's how Collins will conduct this campaign, which Republicans think will be well-funded and more than competitive. You'll hear lots about business principles, how he has successfully run local firms since 1976 and -- these are key words -- how he has created jobs.

You'll hear even more about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a businessman who brought fiscal acumen to City Hall and who somehow makes the metropolis work.

"He calls taxpayers the 'customers' and I've been doing that for a long time," Collins said.

And then you'll hear all about his "bobblehead principle."

"That's when you say to people that the county should be run like a business," he says, "and they just nod their head in agreement."

Not everyone is bobbling so eagerly. Collins has picked a tough year to spew Republican talk in a town where his ilk is increasingly scarce. And the unpopularity of President Bush isn't helping his effort either.

Add to that Collins' failure to secure either the Independence or Conservative line -- considered a must for GOP underdogs in Erie County -- and it adds up to a tough assignment. "The naysayers say it can't be done, because they have too many IOUs out there," he counters. "It's a challenge I would relish because my focus is not on my next political job."

This quiet phase is providing the financial fuel for Collins to broadcast that message. That means the fact that hardly anyone knows him now will change. He's poised to take on whoever emerges from the Democratic scrum. When he does go high profile and the Dems start shooting back, it will be interesting to see if he chucks the MBA talk and climbs into the rough and tumble of politics, Erie County style.

Collins must succeed where business types before him (including himself in 1998) have failed -- convincing all those D voters to pull the R lever.

But he'll have money and a message. And there's no question that even in Erie County, every thoughtful Democrat realizes that Collins' quiet campaign will become very loud and very serious.


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