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NEW YORK GOP LEADERS PLACING THEIR BETS ON DOLE

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas is jumping on the "I Love NY" bandwagon these days, and for good reason. With just about every major Republican in New York State endorsing his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, the "political observers" who do their best observing at presidential election time are asking why any other Republican would even venture into these parts for the March 7, 1996 primary.

"We think Dole will win, if not all, then an overwhelming majority of delegates in this state," Gov. Pataki said in Buffalo on Wednesday. "That might well make New York for the first time an important player."

Indeed, the Senate majority leader seems to be heading toward a lock on New York, which will send 102 delegates (third largest) to the Republican National Convention in San Diego. He has also lined up Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and state Republican Chairman Bill Powers -- the same duo that engineered the Pataki victory and wrested control of the Executive Mansion from the Democrats for the first time in 20 years.

But Dole has not stopped there. He has also gathered Erie County Republican Chairman Tom Reynolds, Attorney General Dennis Vacco, Congressmen Bill Paxon and Jack Quinn, and anybody who's anybody locally.

"Sen. Dole has been here three times to help rebuild our party when it was at low ebb," Reynolds said last week. "He was a significant help to us, and when he called me and asked if I would support him, he knew the answer."

Reynolds calls the Dole effort in New York the most unified he has ever seen, even more than Buffalo's Jack Kemp in 1988.

Pataki says there are lots of good reasons for New York to support Dole. First, he says, Dole is "the right guy." The governor thinks the senator is in a good position to help New York.

And he relishes the Empire State's new chance to influence the process. The New York primary will occur just a week after New Hampshire's, allowing a big say that previously fell to southern and western states in all those "Super Tuesday" affairs.

"For decades, New York has been utterly irrelevant in presidential politics," Pataki said. "We now have an early primary. If we can have New York solidly with Dole, we can impact in a very real way the nominee."

Of course, all this doesn't exactly wash with those already changing their return address labels to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Take Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, seen by most as the Dole's most formidable challenger. Press Secretary Gary Koop says Gramm will be in New York City Monday for a fund-raiser hosted by top GOP names like Lew Lehrman, Dusty Rhodes and Bill Simon.

"It's a long process ahead of us and nobody has got it wrapped up yet," Koop said. "And to say the state is either written off by us or wrapped up by Dole is premature at best."

Still, even Gramm's guy acknowledges that Dole has built a powerful campaign apparatus in New York. And because making the primary ballot in New York involves such an "arcane" process that relies heavily on party backing, Koop says Dole has some built-in advantages.

"Obviously," he said, "they're an asset."

It is quite possible, then, that New York may not prove a favorite stomping ground for presidential hopefuls -- at least during the primary season. If Dole turns out to be as strong as the GOP leaders pray, New York could be just a skipover on the way to more contested pastures.

In Niagara County, meanwhile, the fallout continues from the vicious special election that sent George Maziarz to the State Senate. After the March 14 decision knocked former Republican Assemblywoman Betty Hoffman out of the local political scene, casualties continue to mount.

The latest appears to be County Legislator Renae Kimble, who was fired by state Sen. Anthony R. Nanula on Tuesday.

Ms. Kimble isn't saying much about the situation, but her friends are. They contended weeks ago that she would lose her job in Nanula's Niagara Falls office after she led the fight against the switcheroo that almost resulted in Mrs. Hoffman running on the Democratic line.

Because that scenario was partially engineered by Nanula pal Steve Pigeon as well as the senator's allies in Albany, the political fortune-tellers have long gazed at a pink slip for Ms. Kimble in their crystal balls.

Sen. Nanula, however, vehemently denies any political motives in Ms. Kimble's dismissal. He lays the blame on cutbacks in the Senate's budget and on Ms. Kimble's inability to devote time to both her Senate and County Legislature duties. Ms. Kimble, he said, was one of several Nanula staffers dismissed or cut back.

"The bottom line was that Renae, as a $20,000 part-time person, proved to me she was unable to really make the position a priority because of her commitment to the County Legislature and by the way she handled herself," he said. "The best alternative for me was to let her go. And I wasn't inspired by any other reason than that."

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