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VYING FOR A 'V' LABEL: VICTORY <br> HIGGINS, NAPLES DIVERGE ON HANDLING PARTY TIES IN FINDING PATH TO CONGRESS

If there's one label Brian M. Higgins proudly wears in his campaign for Congress this fall, it's that "D" behind his name.

The one that stands for Democrat. The one he shouts about and emphasizes at every opportunity.

It's a far different approach for his opponent, Nancy A. Naples. In a congressional district dominated by 80,000 more Democrats than Republicans, Naples is delicately tiptoeing across her Republican line. If there's a label for her, it's "independent."

Call it the campaign of the Capital "D" and the small "r." As Higgins proclaims his Democratic philosophy in speeches and omnipresent campaign ads, Naples professes loyalty to President Bush and the GOP -- but at a respectful distance.

Monday's campaign schedule illustrated the point. Higgins imported the House of Representatives' second-ranking Democrat -- Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland -- to a news conference near the General Mills plant to emphasize Higgins' support for Democratic priorities such as raising the minimum wage. Higgins supports it; Naples does not.

"If we're to change the direction in which this country is going, we need a Democratic president and a Democratic House," Hoyer said.

At the same moment, Naples was in West Seneca receiving the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"We believe that your election to the U.S. House of Representatives will help produce sustained economic growth and promote America's competitiveness in world markets," Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's national president, told her.

In an era when personality and media appeal form the crux of many political campaigns, veteran observers say the Higgins-Naples contest offers a unique choice based very much on party affiliation; between a true-blue Democrat and a Republican running on her own terms.

"The public is served by competition," said Joseph F. Crangle, the former Erie County and New York State Democratic chairman and a student of party politics. "You've got to sell philosophy and principle more than personality."

That's exactly the mantra both candidates are following.

For Higgins, it's his family's blue-collar roots and a platform based on "middle-class values." His ads proclaim him a Democrat, a throwback to days when practically all candidates proudly wore their party labels.

He rarely refers to Naples by name, calling her "my Republican opponent." He links her to Bush and policies he says perpetuate tax breaks for "millionaires." He brings in Democrats such as Hoyer, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer (due here Friday), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to preach the Democratic gospel.

The closest Naples comes to similar Republicans is talking farm policy -- not GOP philosophy -- with Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman in Chautauqua County, far removed from Erie County's huge Democratic concentration.

"I'm running as a Democrat," Higgins says plainly, asserting that the Democratic Party sustained the middle class through the 20th century with programs like Social Security and Medicare.

He constantly links Naples to Bush economic programs he says don't work, saying that 2 million jobs have been lost on the president's watch while tax breaks promising to stimulate growth have failed.

"She has no ties to organized labor and will be a rubber stamp for a Republican Congress," Higgins said.

Despite Higgins' attacks on the president, Naples supporters think that Bush is holding his own against Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in the 27th District. They now wonder whether Higgins' attempts to link Bush and Naples will backfire.

"People don't vote party labels anymore. If that were the case, we wouldn't win anything," said Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis. "To me, that sounds like some Washington strategist's thinking -- someone who doesn't understand the local political landscape."

Higgins acknowledges that Bush is showing local strength but says that he is running ahead of Kerry because of the issues he is raising. "It has more to do with the Kerry campaign," Higgins said. "John Kerry has failed to ignite the Democratic base."

As Naples continues to sting Higgins with an anti-Albany brand for his record as an assemblyman, she also spins her own version of GOP philosophy. The Erie County comptroller has declared her "absolute" support for the president, including the war in Iraq, but bristles at her opponent's translation of "absolute."

"I'm against privatizing Social Security," she said, contending that Higgins has falsely accused her of supporting the president on the issue of privatization. "I'm against raising the age, I'm against lowering benefits, and I'm against raising the taxes."

When pressed, however, Naples could not name any other issues in which she differs with the president. She also has said she does not know whether she will vote to re-elect Rep. Tom Delay of Texas as House majority leader.

Still, Naples said she has nurtured a reputation of independence over almost 11 years as county comptroller and constantly invokes the name of the man she and Higgins seek to succeed -- six-term Republican Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr. In a recent debate with Higgins at Medaille College, Naples on several occasions referred to the congressman as "my good friend Jack Quinn."

But Quinn carved out a unique niche in the House GOP by championing issues such as raising the minimum wage, which Higgins and Stoyer said Monday are at the heart of the Democratic effort.

"She incessantly drops the name of Jack Quinn, but her priorities are not consistent with his," Higgins said. "I support a minimum wage and have the support of organized labor. She does neither."

Naples has emphasized traditional Republican approaches to economic growth by backing Bush's tax cuts and supporting business. And she continually points out that a New York State Business Council survey gave Higgins a "C" grade for a record she says fails to promote job growth.

But while Quinn prospered over a unique 12-year congressional career largely by winning labor support as a Republican, Naples so far has little union backing, though she promises some labor endorsements soon. Higgins, at last count, had 38 union endorsements. "I didn't have it, either, when I first ran in '92," Quinn said. "I had to earn it, and didn't mind earning it."

Quinn, who is expected to star in pro-Naples ads soon, said Naples can fashion her own brand of Republican philosophy if she nurtures the independent reputation she has earned as comptroller.

"I think she has to remember her constituents first and foremost, and the party comes second," Quinn said. "Party officials get mad at me when I say that, but it's what you've got to do to win and keep the seat."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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