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The efforts by New York's Democrats to challenge Gov. Pataki this fall have so far drawn about as much interest as those August exhibition games in Rich Stadium.

"Call me when the real thing starts" is the official reaction of most voters. It could be, however, that the real thing is starting. After months of maneuvering behind the scenes by virtually anonymous candidates, some important developments are signaling the start of a statewide campaign that will -- for all its yawner potential -- mobilize thousands of volunteers and cost $40 million in both camps.

First, the wild card known as Betsy McCaughey Ross topped off a remarkable three years as lieutenant governor by declaring her candidacy against her erstwhile ally. Despite some signs of strength, Democrats across the state still don't know what to make of her.

Still, her gubernatorial kickoff in Buffalo proved the most exciting event yet in the young campaign, attracting about 75 jubilant supporters. Compare that to co-candidate Peter Vallone's Buffalo announcement, which brought in Council Member Robert Quintana and a couple of guys in the hallway who smelled the free coffee.

While the intensity level for Ross' announcement waned significantly as her caravan moved east, the Buffalo event showed she's for real (so does the latest Quinnipiac College poll, which finds her continuing to gain strength). And if the seriousness of candidates is measured by crowd turnouts, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt deserves star-making credentials for turning out the Ross troops here. Those troops are his troops, and Hoyt is showing his commitment to her effort will be far more than token.

"Sam Hoyt is the best thing she's got," said an operative for another candidate with grudging admiration.

The Ross candidacy also prompted her rivals to focus their attacks on her, a move some observers say already hangs the front-runner label on the lieutenant governor. Richard Kahan, the former Carey administration official and gubernatorial hopeful, even launched a series of television ads questioning her Democratic credentials in the face of a long Republican, conservative history.

"Betsy McCaughey Ross rose to her current position by attacking Democratic principles and articulating a highly conservative agenda," Kahan said. "It is clear from her public record that her beliefs are determined by what will serve her purposes at a given moment."

This weekend's caucus of Democratic leaders from 41 rural counties also is expected to kindle more interest in the campaign. The winner now heads toward the May convention with the same kind of momentum as more famous candidates have from the New Hampshire primary -- same concept, different circumstances.

The next few weeks will feature courtship dances between candidates and county chairmen around the state as the professional politicians carry out their part of the nominating process. They then descend upon the Rye Town Hilton in Westchester County in late May to nominate an endorsed candidate -- a move that usually results in the kiss of death when real Democrats head to the polls in the September primary. After all, the last endorsed Dem in a contested field to win the Executive Mansion was none other than Averill Harriman -- in 1954.

A few other items gathered along the campaign trail:

The passing of the Republican torch in the Assembly is more than evident with Legislator Bill Pauly's interest in running for retiring Rick Anderson's seat. Pauly would have proved most unwelcome in Albany under former Minority Leader Tom Reynolds. Should Pauly run and win with Reynolds gone from the Albany scene, however, he can now count on office space somewhere other than the Capitol boiler room.

The idea of a Pauly Assembly candidacy is also not producing cartwheels at Republican Headquarters. The legislator's votes for Democrat Chuck Swanick as chairman back in January seemed to ink his name on to the persona non grata list once again.

"Bill Pauly is not the choice of the Republican chairman," said Erie County GOP chief Bob Davis.

Potential Democratic congressional candidates George Hasiotis and Dennis Ward have both wandered down to New York in recent days to check out funding sources for a run against Reynolds and the seat of retiring Bill Paxon. Both are still on the fence.

Not on the fence is Geneseo's Bill Cook, who says he still expects to be Reynolds' opposition.

Congressman Jack Quinn's efforts to convince organized labor that he's a good guy continue to make progress. Not only does he attract more and more area labor leaders to his periodic "round-table" discussions, but he will also deliver the keynote address to the Northeast Public Employees Conference in May in Atlantic City.