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CONTESTED ELECTION GOOD FOR VOTERS

Sometime early this week, underdog Dan Ward will surround himself with the required balloons and streamers and kick off his uphill campaign for county executive against Republican incumbent Joel Giambra.

Throughout the upcoming political season, the Amherst Council member will most likely get sick and tired of words like "underdog" and "uphill." He's going to read and hear them often.

But he and his Democrats are so far unfazed, believing a credible candidate is about to launch a credible campaign. And given that Ward is an underdog and that he does face an uphill campaign, the mere fact that he has agreed to take on Giambra and all his advantages ranks as a major victory for Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan.

Now there will be a full-fledged campaign for county executive, complete with a discussion of the many new ideas Giambra has introduced into the local conversation.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of disappointment in the Giambra camp that a campaign has to take place at all. According to several sources, serious efforts were waged by Giambracrats (those who followed Giambra from the Dems to the GOP) who still maintain close Democratic ties to discourage a Democratic opponent this year.

The reasoning went something like this: An awful lot of money must be raised and spent, many people on both sides must devote their summer to campaigning, and all for a foregone conclusion. Further, the no-campaign crowd said maybe the county executive's positions on regionalism and sharing municipal services were inherently good ideas that needed bipartisan support.

"There is no doubt Joel Giambra's goal was to have no opponent," Lenihan said last week. "That's why you're seeing this incredible hiring of every political person who needed a job."

He added that Giambra went to "incredible lengths" to get friendly Democrats to make the case against an opponent -- an attempt Lenihan said was aimed at dominating both major parties.

Among Republicans, there is no real denial that all would have preferred gliding into a second term. It would have conferred enormous credibility on Giambra and his ambitious agenda, as well as enhancing the statewide aura they are trying to establish.

But there is also a realization that this is Erie County, that there will always be contested elections. They know that a new Democratic chairman is attempting to make his mark and that he was not about to let even Giambra's overwhelming advantages go unchallenged.

In the end, even Giambra's staunchest supporters knew a campaign was inevitable. That's why they're building a $1.7 million campaign fund. And should they win big, that gets added to the statewide resume, too.

And maybe -- just maybe -- the voters of Erie County benefit, too. There's plenty to talk about around here, and it's now a sure bet there will be at least two guys doing lots of talking this election year.

Now that they're over the "we shouldn't have an opponent" phase of their campaign, Erie County Republicans are ready for Democrat Ward. According to knowledgeable sources, they'll shoot at him for tax hikes in Amherst and whether he voted for them, as well as their perception of Amherst as a bastion against the regionalism agenda embraced so strongly by the county executive.

Last week's Politics column reported Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis Gabryszak was scheduled to attend Republican Giambra's fund-raising event at the Rich Atrium on May 8, which in fact was true. But the schedule did not permit the supervisor to join several Democratic colleagues at the event, and he did not attend.

Nevertheless, Gabryszak remains a major target of the Giambra camp, which would love to add him to its list of Democratic supporters.

And speaking of fund raising, Chairman Lenihan is wallowing in something they're not used to at Democratic Headquarters -- money. With some semblance of unity returning to the oft-divided Dems, his May 9 fund-raising dinner featuring Attorney General Eliot Spitzer contributed at least $175,000 to party coffers.

Gov. George Pataki thanked Western New York's Republican leaders for their support in a Tuesday conference call. All eight area GOP chairmen have stuck with the governor in the budget battle that has managed to split the normally solid Republicans.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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