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Michael J. Stachowski summed up the dilemma facing his party Saturday during a break in the marathon interview session for three Democratic county executive candidates.

"It's like picking which son gets the fortune," said Stachowski, vice chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. "They're all our friends, and they've all been loyal Democrats."

But the tiff in the family may soon turn into a major split. After a 4 1/2 -hour session of the party's Executive Committee Saturday in Ellicott Square, deep divisions were evident among the supporters of County Executive Gorski, County Clerk David J. Swarts and Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger -- all eyeing the county's top spot next January.

And while Chairman Vincent J. Sorrentino has indicated he will make no choice until next week, his decision could hinge on the results of a meeting he may arrange soon between Gorski and Mayor Masiello.

Sorrentino would not comment on that possibility Saturday, except to say he remains committed to finding new ways for the county and City of Buffalo to work together. Some observers say progress on that front remains Gorski's best hope for receiving the party endorsement.

Still, nothing remains settled for Sorrentino or many other members of the Executive Committee.

"This won't be anything unanimous," Sorrentino said with a bit of understatement.

Gorski, Swarts and Schimminger all appeared before the 57-member panel to state their cases. And though the beleaguered incumbent is fending off a strong challenge from Swarts, Gorski emphasized his record and the strength he brings.

"I told them this is the best government," Gorski said after his appearance. "I told them it delivers cost-effective services, and it's stable.

"And one of the political consequences of running a good government is making hard decisions," he added. "I said it's easy to be a helmsman in calm waters; it's difficult to be a helmsman in turbulent waters."

Most of Saturday's session dwelt on the results of a party-sponsored poll showing the county executive with a high unfavorable rating and long odds at winning re-election.

Gorski's troops questioned the accuracy and professionalism of the poll throughout the session. They say their own polls show better results and point to the divisive aspects of a primary.

But the results of an independent poll conducted last week by Goldhaber Research Associates demonstrated the reason for concern at Democratic headquarters. The poll showed only 24.1 percent of 515 registered voters surveyed would vote for Gorski regardless of who runs against him, while 50.1 percent would not, and the rest don't know.

The survey, not sponsored by any candidate, also showed only 39.4 percent think Gorski has done an excellent or good job, while 52.8 percent call his performance fair or poor -- though 41.7 percent view him favorably and 30.9 percent view him unfavorably.

"I can understand why there is so much anguish over this," said pollster Gerald M. Goldhaber, who shared his poll results with The Buffalo News. "This looks like a ticket to a probable loss, but on the other hand you'd have a definite primary."

Gorski, however, said a strong campaign aiming to educate the voters about his accomplishments lies ahead.

"If I based my political career on the polls, I never would have run in the first place," Gorski said.

In addition, he said his campaign fund now has topped $400,000, with another fund-raiser slated for this week.

But Swarts reminded the committee of his own allegiance to the party and his experience running unsuccessfully for county executive in 1983 and Congress in 1987, along with two successful runs for clerk. And he insists that the primary campaign some Democrats fear would serve higher purposes.

"A discussion of our records would be healthy for the public," he said. "No one likes to see primaries, but back in '87 Dennis Gorski said primaries aren't bad, that they could energize the electorate, and even be a catharsis."

Schimminger, meanwhile, said he will not make any official announcement of candidacy but instead will shoot for party backing. He repeated his mantra of being "ready, willing and able to serve" if called upon by the party, while questioning Gorski's viability.

"It looks like there will be a different person inhabiting the 16th floor of the Rath Building next year," Schimminger said.

Sorrentino is expected to make his choice early next week. He will then convene the Executive Committee again on April 8 to make a formal decision.

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