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KEMP, AT LOCAL GOP FUND-RAISER, CALLS CURRENT PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN 'BRUTAL'

Jack Kemp knows presidential politics from the inside out. He knows it's a tough game.

But this fall's campaign has even Kemp shaking his head.

"I expect politics to be like professional football: organized violence punctuated by committee meetings," joked Kemp, who ran for vice president in 1996.

But this year?

"It's brutal," he said succinctly.

Kemp, at nearly 70 and, in his own self-deprecating words, "in the twilight of his career," spoke about politics, football and the future of Western New York during a stop in Buffalo on Friday evening for a Republican fund-raising event.

"This is a great city, and it's even greater when you win," said a vibrant Kemp, sporting a silvery tie to the black-tie affair, an idea he claimed to have stolen from Michael Jordan. "I'll never forget the experiences I had, being in Buffalo and in Hamburg. I have nothing but good memories. All my children grew up in Hamburg -- they love this community." Those children are grown now, and Kemp has 15 grandchildren. Yet he looks pretty much the same as ever, and he's busy, too -- after Buffalo he was headed to Illinois and then California for Republican engagements.

Kemp said he didn't want to hazard a prediction as to who will win the presidential contest, George W. Bush or John F. Kerry. He did say, however, that he hopes it isn't close.

"I hope Bush wins by four to six points, rather than by .4 points," he said.

Bush, Kemp said, is a "very nice guy" who deserves re-election.

"I think Bush, fundamentally, is by far the better man. John Kerry has a plan . . . and if anybody can tell me what that plan is, please do."

Some 400 people attended the fund-raising event at Brookfield Country Club in Clarence, a dinner and auction called "Capitol Affair," sponsored by the Erie County Republican Committee.

Before his run for vice president, on a ticket led by Sen. Bob Dole, Kemp served nine terms in Congress, representing Western New York.

He ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988. Under the first President Bush, Kemp served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1993, Kemp co-founded Empower America, a public policy and advocacy organization. Though Kemp no longer lives in Western New York, he said he cares about the region and believes two elements are key to its future: the inclusion of the region in a federal "opportunity zone," and an emphasis on reducing taxes.

"The whole Western New York area should be an area for tax incentives -- not breaks, but incentives," he said. "New York is overtaxed and Western New York is overtaxed. Higher taxes will lose people. People can just walk across the border and pay less."

It wasn't clear whether Kemp was aware that Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra this week angled for an increase in the sales tax, to 9.25 percent, and told residents that the alternative would be a 100 percent increase in property taxes.

The evening also included -- as might have been expected -- some football talk.

Reminiscing about his days as a Buffalo Bill, including the 1964 and 1965 seasons in which the Bills won AFL championships, Kemp spoke with affection of the old War Memorial Stadium.

"Playing in War Memorial Stadium in front of Buffalo fans is a unique experience," he said. "It was a wonderful feeling to be carried off the field and know you had done something."

Kemp contrasted the Buffalo teams of those years with current pro sports teams bound together by money, not spirit. "Together, everyone can achieve more," he said. "That's Buffalo -- not a big-name team, but a great rapport."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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