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Presidential primary spotlight makes rare, crucial shift to New York

Get ready, New York. Something about as rare as Halley’s comet or a Buffalo Bills playoff game is starting to unfold here.

It’s called a presidential primary campaign, and they don’t occur often in a state that the political calendar almost always leaves behind.

Not this year. After Wisconsin’s primaries Tuesday clouded an already murky picture in both parties – New York’s April 19 contest will matter for the first time in many people’s memory, especially on the Republican side. Over the next two weeks, the state’s trove of votes and convention delegates will transform the state from afterthought to political mecca.

Expect something far different from the major efforts just concluded in Wisconsin – minor league compared with a campaign in the nation’s media capital. This is the big time. The Empire State. Home of the Big Apple. Big cities and small towns throughout upstate, too.

“This is our New Hampshire moment, but with delegates,” crowed State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox, noting that the state will now host a spirited primary campaign and not just Manhattan fundraisers.

“This could very well decide who gets the Republican nomination,” he said. “It’s just wonderful that New York’s role is more than just as an ATM.”

The Democratic primary also will be hard-fought. Former President Bill Clinton came right to the point Tuesday while campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Depew.

“This is the election that could matter most in this whole long primary season,” he said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer agrees. While the New Hampshires and Iowas of the nation traditionally hog the political spotlight, it’s about time that one of the nation’s biggest states assumes its rightful position, Schumer says.

“It means, first, candidates come here a lot more and pay a lot of attention. And, second, often they make promises they keep when they become president,” the New York Democrat said a few days ago in Buffalo. “I’ve always thought the primary system has hurt us because they promise Ohio the sun the moon and the stars, and ignore us. Now, it’s a little different. We’re in play; both parties. It’s a great thing.”

Here’s what the candidates covet: Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are fighting for 5,268,431 voters on the Democratic side. New York billionaire businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich are fighting for 2,554,996 voters on the Republican side.

Those New York State voters then translate into 95 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and 291 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – all spread over 27 congressional districts.

This means that all the excitement of a presidential campaign previously reserved for other states – rallies, broadcast and cable ads, hypermedia coverage and stern Secret Service agents combing through our state.

New York also matters beyond its millions of voters. It means that Clinton must – let’s emphasize “must” – claim a major victory in her home state where she convincingly won two elections for the Senate in 2000 and 2006. Is a decadelong absence from the New York ballot too long? Especially as new voters seem enamored with Sanders’ “democratic socialist” message?

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican handicapping the Democratic battle, is setting high expectations for Clinton. Anything less than a 60 percent showing for the former New York senator April 19 would prove disappointing, he says.

“If you can’t take your home state with 60 percent of the vote, that doesn’t say much,” he said.

Collins is not a neutral observer. He will be announced as one of Trump’s campaign co-chairmen in New York at a Long Island event Wednesday.

Clinton’s people are far more optimistic. Longtime supporters such as Leonard R. Lenihan, the Erie County elections commissioner and former county Democratic chairman, points out that the entire New York State Democratic establishment is solidly behind their former senator. That means fundraising capability, phone banks, canvassers and big audiences at rallies such as the one scheduled for her in the Buffalo area Friday.

“I think turnout will be significant, and Hillary will have a big advantage,” he said.

Sanders is also expected to appear locally, although his spokesman was short on details while generous with the kind of campaign talking points voters can expect in coming weeks.

“Sen. Sanders is still planning his schedule for the coming weeks – but he’s committed to making sure voters across the state get a chance to hear his message calling for a political revolution that takes on the billionaires class and puts working families first,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a Sanders spokesman.

Trump, meanwhile, returns to his home turf of New York after falling to Cruz in Wisconsin and after a week of stumbling through controversies over abortion and nuclear weapons.

Even Collins acknowledges that Trump needs a New York rebound.

“He had a rough week; no one can sugarcoat that,” Collins said. “But I don’t think he’ll be limping in here. He’s going to trounce in New York, and maybe that will recharge his engines.”

The congressman predicted that Trump may very well sweep through all of the state’s 27 separate delegate contests.

The action did not take long to unfold Tuesday, even as Wisconsin’s voters were still trekking to the polls. Bill Clinton made the “Hillary case” at Grapevine Banquets in Depew, hoping to capitalize on Western New York’s history of strongly supporting him and his wife.

Come the weekend, enter Kasich, who is scheduled to appear at the Greece Community Center in suburban Rochester on Saturday and is thought to stand a better chance than Trump in places such as Monroe County.

Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter, R-Amherst, and Erie County Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, are leading the Kasich effort in Western New York, convening an organizational meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. Post 6251, Veterans of Foreign Wars, 2450 Walden Ave., Cheektowaga.

The idea is to “cherry-pick” delegates for Kasich, Hardwick said, even though Trump leads in the latest Quinnipiac University poll with 56 percent, compared with 20 percent for Cruz and 19 percent for Kasich.

On Wednesday, Trump’s official New York effort will unveil his leadership team, backed by about 30 county chairmen. His goal is to break the 50 percent mark in every possible congressional district, which would guarantee a sweep of three possible delegates in each of the 27 elections.

“You will see the campaign here,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “The campaign has built a very solid foundation with many chairs. This could be quite a time for the New York Republican world for the next two weeks, when this is the only game in town.”

The chairman said Trump fits the Western New York mold that Collins cast as far back as 2007 when he emphasized his business background in a successful run for Erie County executive. Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino duplicated the theme in 2010 and won that year’s GOP gubernatorial primary in Erie County by a stunning 94 to 6 percent and 2-to-1 statewide.

“Business values can change this, and I think the country is there now, too,
” Langworthy said. “We’ve sent so many people to Washington to fix it, and nothing has happened.”

That leaves Cruz, with an almost negligible campaign presence in New York just as he comes off a Wisconsin victory. The Cruz campaign has begun scouting office space in New York City, sources close to the statewide scene say, but otherwise shows no evidence of even existing in the Empire State. Still, he is slated to appear Thursday at a Christian academy in the Village of Scotia, Schenectady County.

His campaign also has been discussing a possible role for Anthony H. Gioia, the Buffalo businessman and former ambassador to Malta who had been raising money for the Marco Rubio campaign. Gioia, who has years of political fundraising experience, is expected to discuss the campaign with Cruz officials Thursday in New York City.

“There’s not one person here whom I would call the head of the Ted Cruz campaign,” Langworthy said. “Not one of the 62 county chairs is with him. I find that to be fascinating.”

News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this report. email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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