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DEMOCRATS RESCUE MCCAIN IN BALLOT STRUGGLE

Arizona Sen. John McCain, all set to be tossed off the ballots of eight upstate congressional districts for the state's Republican presidential primary March 7, found himself with an unusual ally Wednesday: state Democrats.

Breaking with a long tradition of unspoken, interparty deals to bounce insurgent candidates off the state's ballots, the two Democratic commissioners on the state Board of Elections rejected an attempt by the state Republican Party and Gov. George E. Pataki to keep McCain off ballots in several congressional districts in Western New York and other areas of the state.

"I'll take their help; you bet," Guy V. Molinari, chairman of McCain's New York campaign, said of the Democrats' surprise move to keep McCain on the upstate ballots.

Molinari, a veteran Republican leader on Staten Island, and Democrats insisted that there was no deal made between the two sides to help McCain, who is struggling against the state GOP and its forces that are backing Texas Gov. George W. Bush, to get onto all the ballots in the state's 31 congressional districts.

But Democratic sources said the idea to have the two Democratic commissioners vote to keep McCain on the ballots, even though the McCain camp acknowledged that it failed to collect the required number of petition signatures, came from senior levels within the state Democratic Party.

The decision -- barring a state court ruling, which could come this week -- now keeps McCain on the ballot in the 27th District, which is represented by Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, and stretches from Erie County to Monroe County. He also is on the ballot in the 29th District, which includes parts of Erie and Niagara counties and is represented by Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, and the 31st District, which stretches along the Southern Tier and is represented by Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning.

The board's action, however, does not put McCain onto the ballot in Erie County's 30th District, which is represented by Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg. McCain's camp failed to file any petitions for the ballot there.

Party sources said the intent was to help ensure that the intense battle now under way between Bush and McCain continues into the New York primary campaign, which is unusually early this year compared with past years. But a spokesman for the state Democratic Party denied any involvement in Wednesday's Board of Elections vote. "We didn't have any part in trying to orchestrate this," said the spokesman, Peter Kaufman. He made clear, however, that Democrats were not at all sorry for what happened.

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