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Call it the New Hampshire primary of New York politics.

That theme will dominate the meeting of Democrats from 41 rural counties Saturday in Ithaca as they help shape this year's statewide political contests and allow at least some candidates to leave proclaiming themselves "front runners."

While the rural delegates represent only about 15 percent of Democrats across the state, the test not only will provide early bragging rights but also shine a new spotlight on upstate as crucial political turf.

"We've got to do well in these areas that Gov. Pataki won by margins of 2 to 1 in 1994," said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney and gubernatorial hopeful who, like 16 other statewide candidates, is attaching major significance to the weekend gathering.

"Mark is taking it very seriously," added Joe DePlasco, spokesman for Senate candidate Mark Green, the New York City public advocate. "Given that just about all the candidates are from downstate, these candidates have an obligation to reach out to upstate."

Five candidates for governor, three for U.S. senator, four for state attorney general and as many as five for lieutenant governor will attend the meeting of the Democratic Rural Conference at the Ithaca Holiday Inn. All have either worked the upstate area furiously in the past few weeks or have established long-term ties to counties that traditionally take back seats to New York City and its suburbs.

Some signs of the new upstate focus include:

Lt. Gov. Ross' decision to start her gubernatorial campaign in Buffalo last week, rather than the traditional major announcement in Manhattan and ancillary stops in upstate cities.

It was her way, she said, of underscoring the difference between New York City's Wall Street boom and upstate's economic struggle -- what she calls the "tale of two economies."

She said, "Unfortunately, Western New York's needs and potential have been neglected."

New York City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone's emphasis on upstate's economic woes during his recent announcement for governor, even while standing on the steps of City Hall in Manhattan.

This week he announced a "New York Family Farmers First" program to benefit upstate farmers selling products to New York City government.

The nearly year-long concentration on upstate Democratic organizations by Senate candidates Green and Rep. Charles E. Schumer and gubernatorial candidate James L. Larocca, former state transportation commissioner.

Larocca, who counts Western New York Democratic chairmen like Nicholas J. Forster of Niagara County and William O'Dell of Cattaraugus County among his backers, has taken a lesson from history by studying the last contested Democratic primary for governor between Mario M. Cuomo and Edward I. Koch in 1982.

"Cuomo lost four of the five (New York City) boroughs, lost Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau" counties but won statewide, said one Larocca insider. "When you recognize that, you see our strategy."

The Ithaca meeting of rural Democrats is expected to provide a spotlight and some momentum to the races following the failure of their big-city cousins to do the same. Democrats from the state's 13 largest counties tried on three occasions over the past six months to settle on a consensus candidate.

Each time they failed.

The "New Hampshire primary" aspect of the race follows what might be called the "Iowa caucus" equivalent held in Schenectady last weekend. The straw poll of several hundred Democrats sponsored by Schenectady County Democrats gave Lt. Gov. Ross a narrow 118-114 win over Larocca, with 91 for Vallone. Hynes and former state Urban Development Corp. Chairman Richard Kahan trailed far back.

In Ithaca, however, a secret ballot of delegates is expected to provide a more accurate reflection of the candidates' standing.

Lt. Gov. Ross will head into the meeting with the support of John C. Dillenburg, outgoing chairman of the Chautauqua County Democratic Committee.

Former Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of Queens is expected to join the Senate race with Green and Schumer. Schumer sent a letter to supporters this week asking them not to vote for him at the meeting but rather to express support at the May state convention. That move could prevent the weekend meeting from being a true reflection of the rural counties' sense in the Senate race.

Attorney general candidates include former Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell of the Bronx, State Sen. Catherine Abate, former prosecutor Eliot Spitzer and former gubernatorial counsel Evan Davis, all of Manhattan.

Potential candidates for lieutenant governor expected to lobby for support in Ithaca include Buffalo Common Council Member at Large Barbra A. Kavanaugh, Plattsburgh Mayor Clyde Rabideau, Manhattan Democratic official Charlie King, Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel and New Rochelle Councilwoman Christina Selin.

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