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maybe too easy -- for Mayor Tony Masiello this year.

At this early juncture, Masiello appears unopposed for a third term by anyone with the megabucks to fuel a serious challenge. With $1 million in the bank, an experienced and capable campaign team behind him, and the city sailing along semi-smoothly (with emphasis on the semi), the ex-Canisius College hoop star is fast breaking toward a slam dunk.

For sure, Council Member at Large Beverly Gray is sounding more and more serious about the September primary. And there is no doubt she can mount a credible campaign, given her strong support in past citywide elections.

But even Gray acknowledges that her lack of funds will prevent real competition with a Division I opponent like Masiello. She may make things interesting, but it will prove difficult.

Still, everything is less than hunky-dory for the mayor as he cruises toward November. At some point he will amble into the city Republican committee's headquarters in Ellicott Square and discuss with Buffalo Chairman Dennis Ryan and Erie County Chairman Bob Davis the GOP support that will all but sew up a third term.

That's when things start getting tricky.

In those discussions the chairmen will look past this year to the 2002 election for governor. As he seeks the GOP line that he successfully garnered in 1997, and with no other Republican yet expressing interest in running, the Democratic mayor will be asked about 2002.

"Will you again endorse George Pataki for governor?" they will ask. "Will the state's leading Democratic mayor provide a major boost once again to a governor facing stiff competition? And will you acknowledge the extraordinary support Pataki has extended to you and to Buffalo?" Nobody uses the words quid pro quo, but somehow they seem to sneak into the developing scenario.

The mayor's choice this time will prove much more difficult than his 1998 endorsement of Pataki. This time the Democratic nominee for governor will not be Peter Vallone, the amiable but overmatched New York City Council speaker. This time it will be a heavyweight -- either Comptroller Carl McCall or former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

And this time Masiello must make an even more difficult choice between maintaining close relationship with Pataki or returning to his Democratic roots with a strong Democratic candidate for governor.

"I obviously want to know where Tony is coming from," Davis said last week. "The governor has been very good to the City of Buffalo."

And Davis points out that Masiello has made political hay out of his relationship with Pataki, as well as his friendship with Republican County Executive Joel Giambra. For once, the chairman says, Western New Yorkers see the three political figures most important to them cooperating rather than sniping at each other.

The mayor understandably sidesteps questions about 2002. That's too far down the road, he says. But as long as he continues his 2001 flirtation with the GOP, those questions will prove part of the equation. The deal means the mayor gets a free ride in November, while the GOP gets his ear for 2002 and a place at the City Hall table now.

Davis sums it up nicely: "It's a tough spot for Tony."

A few other items from the campaign trail:

Speaking of Davis, his name continues to simmer in a back burner pot of potential replacements for state Republican Chairman Bill Powers. Nothing has yet brought that pot to the front burner, but if the pot gets there, most political observers believe Davis' name will be one of those boiling to the top.

Speculation continues to center on Buffalo Comptroller Anthony Nanula's preparation for a Democratic shot at state comptroller at 2002, but that doesn't mean the same spadework isn't occurring on the GOP side. Assembly Minority Leader John Faso of Kinderhook was doing just that last weekend during a two-day visit to Buffalo.

Sources close to Republican Amo Houghton of Corning say all the chit-chat about the congressman leaving Washington to take a major ambassadorial post should, as they say in diplomat-speak, be "dismissed in the strongest and frankest terms."

You can tell Gov. Pataki is taking Comptroller McCall's promise to challenge him next year very seriously, even 21 months before election. A local state appointee just happened to be on hand at the Adam's Mark Hotel last weekend to offer reaction to any McCall statements, while Pataki's Albany spokesmen were calling late Sunday to counter anything the comptroller might have offered in his Sunday sermons at two area churches.

And in case you're wondering, a new Zogby poll has Pataki leading both his potential challengers by healthy margins. He leads McCall 48-38 percent; Cuomo 48-37 percent.

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