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HARD-HITTING ACTION OFF THE FOOTBALL FIELD

With the Bills off today and 0-3, you may be casting about for a new favorite spectator sport. And with the political season in full swing, you're bound to see more hard hitting than Orchard Park's version of an offensive line anyway.

Here are a few late-breaking developments in Western New York's Wide World of Politics:

You didn't hear a whisper about this, but Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon was unanimously re-elected party chief early last week -- without so much as a Joseph X. Martin protest vote a la 1996. After the tumultuous and divisive campaign for the chairmanship following the bitter county executive primary of 1995, Pigeon has not only survived but seems to be firmly entrenched as top Dem dog.

Not that he is universally revered. There is still plenty of grumbling in traditional party strongholds like organized labor. But Pigeon has two very important Democrats -- County Executive Gorski and Mayor Masiello -- still solidly in his corner.

That means Pigeon will be in command for at least another two years, barring any sudden changes of heart in the Rath Building or City Hall.

And those who follow the political box scores daily can only wonder when Pigeon will take a shot at the major leagues. If a vacuum occurs on the state level following this fall's election, the odds-makers say he'll be in the hunt for the state chairmanship.

Speaking of the newly re-elected chairman, a few sports fans have noticed the relatively muted criticism of Masiello in the wake of the mayor's endorsement of Gov. Pataki for re-election a few days ago. When Comptroller Joel Giambra endorsed Republican Al D'Amato for the Senate, he was labeled "Benedict Arnold" and hit with threats of a primary next year.

And up in Niagara Falls, Niagara County Democratic Chairman Nick Forster all but drummed out of the party Mayor James Galie for similarPataki backing.

But Pigeon's comments were tame in comparison, probably in recognition of Masiello as one of his two main sources of strength.

Nominations for State Supreme Court are scheduled to be locked up at judicial nominating conventions Monday night, with both major parties gathering in separate venues at the Statler Towers. Barring some last-minute developments, the parties will cross-endorse Democrat Joe Makowski and incumbent Republican Ed Rath.

Not that everything is hunky-dory between the GOP and Dems on this one. GOP Chairman Bob Davis dearly wanted bipartisan backing for Rath on the theory that such support should be afforded sitting justices, while finding another Republican to battle for the second spot.

But Pigeon recognized his strength here, and basically traded the Rath cross-endorsement for the Makowski cross-endorsement.

And as Republicans noted, there was no stampede of GOP judicial hopefuls clamoring for a nomination and the six-figure campaign associated with it.

Davis didn't have that bad a week, however. He and Vice Chairman Ralph Vanner put together a successful fund-raising event this weekend at the Orchard Park Country Club featuring Pataki and some other GOP luminaries. The black-tie affair netted more than $100,000 for the local party, some of which may just find its way into area Assembly races this fall.

And the bet here is that a portion may also be squirreled away for a rainy day in 1999, say when the Republicans take on Gorski.

And speaking of that race, some reliable sources report that Erie County Republicans are actually including Giambra's name in some of their polling -- with some favorable results even in suburban areas. That's just in case, mind you, Jumpin' Joel Giambra jumps leagues a la Jumpin' Joe Dugan.

Some observers of the state political scene point out that in all of New York State, there appears to be one competitive State Senate race -- in Brooklyn.

In the "every little bit helps" department:Assembly candidates Susan Peimer, a Democrat, and Steve McCarville, a Republican, actually won primaries for the almost-defunct Freedom Party last week.

The best quote of recent days comes from James Carville, the Clinton spinmeister who spoke before the Jewish Federation on Sept 17. After wrapping up his news conference and heading into a reception for major donors, Carville turned and reassembled reporters for one last thought.

"Like the guys in Washington, y'all ask the tough questions," he said. "But you're a lot nicer doing it."