For decades, the thought of State Sen. William T. Stachowski of Lake View as politically vulnerable bordered on unthinkable.
He has never faced a serious challenge during 27 years in Albany. He almost always garnered all minor lines, built comfortable campaign treasuries, and enjoyed an enrollment advantage of about 56,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
But former Buffalo Police Detective Dennis A. Delano -- his Republican challenger -- is posing a major threat. The signs of a tough contest are emerging everywhere. They include:
* A new Siena Research Institute poll showing Delano leading by 13 points -- 49 percent to 36 percent.
* Television commercials saturating the airwaves for both candidates.
* Stachowski's calls for debates against Delano, whom he accuses of ducking any such encounters.
* Stachowski's efforts to crank up a long-dormant political operation, which has always remained well funded for just such an emergency. For the first time in his long career, he is issuing campaign releases in response to developments in the contest.
Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena poll, said the results justify the explosion of political activity in the 58th District, which includes much of East and South Buffalo as well as southern Erie County.
"Voters think Delano is better on the issues, and when asked a generic 're-elect' question with no opponent, more voters were inclined to 'prefer someone else' than to re-elect Stachowski," he said. "With four weeks to go, the incumbent, trailing by 13 points, faces an uphill climb if he wants to pull a come-from-behind victory."
Delano got his first big break in June, when state Independence Party officials -- at least one with close ties to the Republican Senate -- overturned the local committee's endorsement of Stachowski and awarded it to Delano. That gave the challenger a key minor party line.
Since then, Delano has been ubiquitous on television, featuring testimonials from the parents of Anthony Capozzi, improperly imprisoned for 22 years as the Delaware Park rapist until Delano's efforts proved instrumental in proving another man as the culprit.
Most importantly, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee has pumped $176,030 into the race since late August, along with another $19,000 from the past and current majority leaders of the GOP Senate -- Joseph L. Bruno and Dean A. Skelos.
Stachowski, meanwhile, has spent just over $71,000 so far -- mostly on ads featuring a testimonial from Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. He still has just under $70,000 on hand, according to state Board of Elections records.
In yet another sign of the competitiveness of the contest, both sides on Wednesday issued statements from campaign strategists -- not the candidates themselves -- in response to the Siena poll designed to highlight key themes.
Stachowski spokeswoman Cathy Calhoun, for example, emphasized from a Manhattan consulting firm the senator's accomplishments and the fact he is a Democrat.
"Democratic Sen. Bill Stachowski saved 800 jobs when he kept St. Joseph's Hospital from closing while Republican Dennis Delano supports the failed Bush policies that have brought economic ruin to much of Western New York," she said.
Joseph Conway, spokesman for the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in Albany, countered with his own statement.
"The people of New York want property tax relief, a strong, vibrant economy that creates new jobs, and a responsible, accountable government," he said. "That's what our candidates are campaigning on and what our candidates will deliver, and that's why we're going to pick up seats on Election Day."
The Stachowski campaign also issued a statement pointing out Delano has yet to appear at any public forum with the senator, and proposed three dates for a debate.
In addition, evidence points to Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano and his Responsible New York political committee beginning to lend support to Stachowski. William A. Delmont, a longtime Conservative official and publisher of the Lackawanna Front Page, confirmed this week that Responsible New York has purchased several full page ads in the newspaper praising Stachowski for the next several weeks.
Golisano also is featured in new ads for two other Democrats he has endorsed for Senate -- Joe Mesi in the contest against Republican Michael H. Ranzenhofer for the seat of retiring Republican Mary Lou Rath of Williamsville, and Kathy Konst, who is challenging incumbent Republican Dale M. Volker of Lancaster.
The Siena poll, released Wednesday, also showed Volker leading Konst 50 percent to 33 percent.