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IT WAS JUST past noon Wednesday when Joel Giambra walked through the doors of the Park Lane.

Heads turned and eyes shifted among the suit-and-tie crowd inside the tony Buffalo restaurant.

"Can you get me one of those 'Proud to Be Italian' buttons?" asked the hostess.

A middle-aged couple intercepted him near the bar.

"We need a change," said the woman, shaking his hand. "And (Gorski's) doing a real crappy job of tearing you up."

These are good days for Giambra, the Democrat-turned-Republican running for county executive. A recent poll showed him up 21 percent on three-term incumbent Dennis Gorski. He won a convincing victory in last week's Republican primary and easily took the Independence line despite a big Gorski effort.

The race is far from over, and Giambra knows it. On the wall of his campaign headquarters is a poster from the '93 Bills-Oilers playoff game, when the Bills came from 32 points down to win.

Still, the poll and the primary elevated Giambra's star and fueled his campaign money pipeline. People are more inclined to write a check if they think you've got a shot. Giambra didn't talk dollars but said there was "much more receptivity" lately to his fund-raising calls.

The Park Lane lunch was with a couple of prospective donors.

What's happening now is the payoff for having guts.

The political subculture is littered with turtles and chickens, politicians afraid to stick their necks out. They're terrified of risking their safe, perk-laden seats to run for an office they may not win, to champion an idea that isn't poll-tested and party-backed.

To his credit, that has never been Giambra's story.

Time and again, Giambra -- unlike most of his peers -- has not been afraid to roll the dice.

He got over the fear of losing long ago.

As a teeny-bopper idol on the West Side, he lost his first two races for district Council. It didn't help that starry-eyed teen-age girls took his campaign signs to hang in their bedrooms.

"I always felt I'd end up OK," he says. Then, cackling, he adds the kicker: "Even if I had to go to Carolina like everybody else to get a job."

Five years ago, before regionalism was a political buzzword, Giambra carried the flag for leaner government. He talked about sharing services and axing needless bureaucrats at Kiwanis luncheons and Rotary picnics from Hamburg to Clarence. It wasn't sexy, but -- in high-tax Erie County -- it played. It didn't hurt his credibility that one of the jobs the city comptroller wanted to cut was his own.

Like anybody who carries the flag, he took hits. He was called Dr. Joel Kevorkian, the man who said Buffalo was on financial life support -- and wanted to pull the plug.

"The whole idea, then and now, is to reduce the cost of government," says Giambra, "to where we can compete with other communities for private-sector jobs."

When it was obvious Democratic boss Steve Pigeon had little use for him, Giambra turned Republican. Critics called him an opportunist. Then again, if you shut the door in somebody's face, you can't blame them for going out the window. Pigeon's guy is Anthony Nanula; Giambra was less than an afterthought. In Giambra's defense, it wasn't all about political expedience -- his pro-business, smaller-government message is more Republican than Democrat.

When he announced seven months ago he was running, it looked like a reach.

Gorski was seen as an unslayable dragon, a three-term incumbent with a political army and a million bucks in the bank. To take his shot, Giambra has to give up a $74,000-a-year job -- despite a wife, four kids and a mortgage. Look no further than the soon-to-be-unemployed Dave Franczyk for a risk assessment. Even if -- should he lose -- Republicans find Giambra a job, his political star will have dimmed.

"There were times in the beginning," he admits, "when I was up at night wondering if I'd made the right decision."

Gorski may still prove unslayable, but Giambra has shown he's vulnerable.

"At least my 7-year-old doesn't talk anymore about us buying the vacant 7-Eleven on Amherst Street," Giambra said. "That was Dominic's plan for a while; we'd all go work in the store."

Some say he's backtracked all over the place, toning down the old slash-and-burn rhetoric in the name of political survival. Maybe so. Giambra told me a couple of years ago he purposely turned up the volume early on, to get people's attention. In any event, he's not talking about merging city and county government anymore.

Given how new this stuff was five years ago, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He didn't have all the answers, but at least he was asking the questions.

In one sense, the race goes beyond any policy or program. Giambra looks good and is a master of small talk, both huge political assets. And folks are weary of Gorski -- two of three people polled said it was time for a change.

But this isn't just about Giambra being in the right place at the right time.

It's about having the guts to get there.

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