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WNY is key to control of Senate State power balance hinges on 3 seats

The battle for control of the State Senate has shifted to Western New York and three local races.

So expect a considerable influx of campaign dollars, outside political heavyweights in cameo appearances and ad blitzes certain to make voters blurry-eyed.

"Western New York is shaping up to be a critical battleground for the majority," said Sen. Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican who heads the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

He gets no argument on that point from Sen. Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo, co-chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

"Between the races in Erie County and the races in Monroe County, this is truly the epicenter of what's going to happen in the state," he said.

At stake is the last bastion of power in Albany for the GOP, which is mobilizing its forces to keep it seated at the Capitol's power table with the governor and Assembly speaker.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, see this year's election as a chance to lock up every major legislative and executive position in state government and, with reapportionment just a few years away, the possibility of cementing that grip for decades.

Signs of the intense political fight are everywhere:

*A strong challenge by County Legislator Kathy Konst, a Lancaster Democrat, to Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, who has ranked as a player in Albany since 1972.

*Former boxer Joe Mesi, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat, is considered even with County Legislator Michael H. Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, for the seat of retiring Sen. Mary Lou Rath of Williamsville, previously considered safe GOP turf.

*Dennis A. Delano, a Cheektowaga Republican and former Buffalo police detective, is giving fits to Sen. William T. Stachowski, a Lake View Democrat who has easily weathered every challenge since his arrival in the Senate 27 years ago.

*Substantial campaign funding is pouring into Buffalo broadcast stations as Albany power brokers recognize this region as the state's main battleground.

*Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Rockville Centre Republican, and Minority Leader Malcolm A. Smith, a Queens Democrat, are now frequent visitors to the area. Smith is due here Saturday. Skelos' trip here Monday was his fifth since late June.

*Minor parties such as Independence and Conservative are inserting their sometimes important influence for the Republicans, with Working Families helping area Democrats.

*Other outside forces also are jumping in, such as Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano and his independent committee, Responsible New York, sponsoring ads for Konst, Mesi and Stachowski.

Previous contests in Western New York provided little drama, but that changed as the Republicans' control eroded over the years. Skelos acknowledged as much during his Monday visit, as he made the case for change and preserving the status quo in the same breath.

"When you forget your home base, any incumbent can get in trouble in either a primary or general election," he said. "All politics is local, and Bill Stachowski has forgotten that. Dale Volker has not forgotten his home base."

Skelos' frequent visits since succeeding Joseph L. Bruno as majority leader underscore the importance the GOP is putting on its upstate base. Bruno was rarerly in Western New York, showing up for occasional government events that usually coincided with a Senate fundraiser.

But Skelos' first trip outside Albany after being named majority leader in June was to Buffalo, where he vowed to not be a stranger.

A Long Island resident, Skelos draws a distinction between his suburban base and the New York City leadership he says will result from Democratic control of the Legislature. And in a time of financial distress, Skelos takes every opportunity to drive home that point in places like Erie County.

"My biggest concern is that, if the Democrats get control, every leader will be from New York City, and they'll just tax their way out of this," he said.

Democrats say Republicans have had their turn running things in the Senate for all but one year in the past seven decades -- and upstate has faltered throughout.

Democrats previously had focused on three seats: Rath's and those of two Republicans in the Rochester area. But over the past month, efforts shifted to the seats held by two veterans, Volker and Stachowski.

Smith described Volker's situation as a "surprise."

"We didn't think Kathy Konst would be as aggressive" a challenger to the region's longest-serving Republican in Albany, Smith said. Still, the Democratic leader called it a "tough seat" for Democrats to win.

Smith is far more optimistic about the Rath seat, pitting Mesi against Ranzenhofer.

"That's a favorite for us," he said.

Equally surprising to Smith, in another sense, is the Stachowski-Delano contest. Smith called it "in play" and conceded it is "going to make me use some resources I would not have used."

Stachowski backers have been dangling one carrot before voters: If Democrats gain control of the Senate, he could become the Senate Finance Committee chairman.

Smith only would say that Stachowski's position "clearly gives him a leg up."

Campaign funding, meanwhile, largely has focused on the Rath seat.

The main fundraising arm for the Senate Republicans has pumped $361,000 into Ranzenhofer's campaign since August. Later, sensing trouble, it turned to Volker and has infused $184,000 into his efforts.

Delano, a sleeper candidate, has received $131,000 over the past couple of months from the GOP committee. Over the same period, the Democrats, apparently caught off guard, provided Stachowski only $1,382, state Board of Elections filings show. The next round of campaign finance reports, due to be made public next week, are likely to show that has changed.

Konst, who has received indirect financial support from Golisano's operation, got just $7,600 from two major Democratic Party campaign accounts. Mesi, however, got help worth $233,000 from the Democrats, much of it from the state Democratic Party account controlled by Gov. David A. Paterson.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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