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Area Republican leaders are planning their most serious campaign ever against veteran Rep. John J. LaFalce -- and they think they've found their candidate.

Christopher C. Collins, founder and president of Nuttall Gear Corp. in Wheatfield, is emerging as the leading candidate to challenge the 12-term incumbent. He appears to have locked up support from the leaders of all four county organizations of the 29th District and, significantly, is guaranteeing commitment of his own substantial resources to what could ultimately prove to be a $1 million campaign.

"This is without question the most serious challenge John has ever had," said Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis. "This is for real."

Collins, 47, is a Clarence resident who must relocate to the district should he prove successful. But he is claiming familiarity with the district from his 22-year association with the Nuttall plant in Wheatfield and will emphasize a long and successful business career in his new effort.

"I'm an entrepreneurial small businessman, not a politician," he said. "I have my own strong opinions about Washington and John LaFalce, and I thought this is the time to step forward."

Only a few weeks ago, area GOP leaders acknowledged they had few prospects to oppose LaFalce. But Collins appeared on the doorstep of Niagara County Chairman John J. Long shortly after Rep. Bill Paxon announced his retirement. Collins offered his services and a commitment to relocate and raise the necessary funds.

"I was impressed," Long said.

Collins, a Schenectady native who grew up in North Carolina, has lived in Erie County for 22 years. His father, Jerry, was a one-time General Electric Co. executive who also served for 20 years as president of General Railway Signal in Rochester.

The candidate worked for Westinghouse Electric for several years before arranging the leveraged buyout of its Gear Division in 1982, resulting in the establishment of Nuttall Gear. When the company was bought by Ameridrives International in 1997, Collins remained as president of the 130-employee manufacturing firm. He acknowledged the sale afforded him substantial resources and time to pursue what had never before been a goal.

"Congress was never on my list of career goals; I'm a businessman," he said. "But I'm finding out now how candidates win and lose, and I've come to the conclusion that a businessman can go to Washington."

Collins brings a self-described conservative philosophy to the race and is already attacking LaFalce's votes that he said have concentrated on raising taxes and raising salaries. And like other opponents before him, he will claim LaFalce has "been there too long."

But unlike other candidates, Collins and his party backers contend this effort will be properly financed. Sources indicate he has promised to raise $150,000 to start, and that in turn, is expected to leverage other funds from national Republican sources in Washington and around the country.

In fact, Collins was in Washington all last week talking with party and congressional leaders and attending candidate sessions sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Veteran political consultant Michael Hook, one-time aide to Paxon and former staff chief of the Republican National Committee, has signed on with the campaign -- another sign of the importance attached to the effort.

LaFalce declined to comment on his prospective opponent.

Collins is married with two children, graduated from North Carolina State University and the University of Alabama in Birmingham. He is Catholic and serves on a number of area boards and advisory panels.

Collins emphasizes he has made no final decision about challenging LaFalce but has already issued campaign literature, established an Internet web site and plans to begin consulting GOP leaders of several towns this week.

"I'm taking it very seriously," he said. "I will only enter this if I think I can win."

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