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Joel Giambra got a taste Tuesday of what the future might look like. At 11 o'clock, just in time for the live lead on local TV, Giambra stepped in front of 200 Republicans at the Shannon Pub in Amherst and put his arm around Elise Swiantek Cusack.

This was the marquee Republican primary race, the bright young woman returned from Washington, D.C., to take on 25-year incumbent Bill Pauly. Looming over the race was the shadow of Giambra. The county executive was elected two years ago with a mandate for change, but frustrated since by a one-vote disadvantage in the Legislature. Pauly, a Republican in name but not in practice, was the key swing vote in the 9-8 legislative majority that did everything from hold up the tobacco settlement to hang up Giambra's control of the Erie County Medical Center board.

It's not often an incumbent legislator loses, not one who isn't hounded by scandal or other baggage. Yet Cusack, running for the first time, didn't just beat Pauly, she obliterated him.

As much as a victory for Cusack, it was a victory for Giambra. The county executive wasn't running Tuesday night, but he was the politician with the most on the line. He threw himself into the race, sometimes going door to door with Cusack, and urged deep-pockets Republicans to pony up for the expectant mom with heavy Republican bloodlines. He gambled that his popularity, now at ozone level, could elevate not just him, but those pledged to him.

In the 14th District, he cashed in.

"This is the race that marks the end of the status quo," said Cusack. "It's a huge step forward for the county."

He didn't get everything he wanted -- Greg Olma, a scandal-plagued Democrat who supports him, went down, in effect canceling Cusack's victory. Whether Giambra gets the long-term friendly legislature he wants won't be decided until November. But with the Cusack win, he got a strong sign that being pro-Giambra means victory. And that could mean Christmas, for Giambra, comes in November.

"The thing we heard with the Cusack race is the message works," said Republican Party boss Bob Davis. "Now we'll focus in November on races where we feel we have a chance to upset the incumbents."

The targets are Democrats Chuck Swanick, Lynn Marinelli and -- especially -- Judy Fisher. The message, basically, is that they are the roadblocks to the change Giambra was elected to bring.

"Based on the margin (of Cusack's victory), there's no question these others are vulnerable," said Davis. "Cusack ran on the message of obstructionism, of a Legislature that won't work with (Giambra), and she got 70 percent of the vote."

No wonder Giambra was smiling as he took the podium.

"It's an exciting night for change," said Giambra, using his eternal buzzword, "when you have an alternative candidate with a strong message who wins. It reaffirms my faith in the voters."

Even if things stay as they are in November, a complicated weighted vote in effect through March 15 will give Giambra a legislative majority for more than three months. But three months isn't enough time to deal with all that's coming down the pike.

Giambra wants to change the way money-bleeding ECMC works. There's talk of consolidating city and county police. He wants to change the way the glut of economic development agencies work -- or, given the comatose economy, don't work. There are town and village consolidations in the pipeline. With the stock market tanking and the billions getting funneled to help New York City recover from Sept. 11, leaner government is more of a necessity than an option.

We won't know until November if Giambra gets the clearer legislative field he wants.

We found out Tuesday night, with Cusack's landslide, just how possible it might be.


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