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From the tame tenor of the debate before the Corning Rotary Club a few days ago, you might never sense the bitterness underlying the effort to succeed Rep. Amo Houghton in Congress.

Amid the folksy moderator's jokes and the constant praise for the retiring Republican from State Sen. John R. Kuhl, the Republican candidate, and Samara Barend, the Democratic nominee, a nasty and personal contest now centers on Kuhl's personal life -- even though both candidates would rather focus on developing the Southern Tier district that now stretches from Salamanca to Elmira and north into the Rochester suburbs.

Kuhl, 62, a 24-year veteran of the State Legislature, and Barend, a 27-year-old community activist and graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, both present detailed plans to revive the Southern Tier. But the Barend campaign's involvement in obtaining sealed papers detailing Kuhl's 1998 divorce from his wife, Jennifer, is now dominating the final days of the campaign.

The campaign's long-simmering bitterness finally erupted when Steuben County District Attorney John Tunney announced last week that Jonah Siegallak, Barend's campaign manager, had directed a student volunteer to obtain information on Kuhl and had inadvertently received divorce records that soon made the rounds among Internet outlets.

"Jennifer and I said a few weeks ago that we learned that our private, court-sealed divorce proceedings were taken from the Steuben County clerk's office," Kuhl said late last week. "We said that at the time this was an attempt to commit political sabotage. Now . . . our suspicions were confirmed. I was extremely disappointed to learn that Samara Barend was behind the invasion into our families' privacy."

All this follows Siegallak's repeated denial of any involvement to several Southern Tier newspapers, provoking seething responses from the area's top Republicans.

"Now we know that the release of the Kuhl legally sealed divorce records was orchestrated by the Samara Barend campaign," charged Bill Hatch, chairman of the Steuben County Republican Party. "And now we know that she has lied about her campaign's involvement. What a betrayal of public trust."

But despite the brouhaha over the documents' release, Kuhl refuses to discuss their contents and his ex-wife's allegations that he threatened to shoot her with two shotguns during a 1994 dinner party. The papers also allege that after the Bath-based Kuhl was charged with drunken driving in 1997, he refused his ex-wife's requests "to attend counseling to deal with his excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages."

He declined to talk about his divorce, even when pressed about the possibility the allegations could concern 29th District voters.

"This is still an invasion of my privacy," he said. "If you look at the papers, they are allegations. But there are also denials. I'm just not going to discuss it."

Barend also has refused to discuss the controversy, except late last week in reaction to the findings resulting from the district attorney's probe.

"I have disciplined (Siegallak) for not being open and honest with the press or with me," she said, while refusing to fire him and maintaining that neither she nor Siegallak released the papers.

The controversy overshadows a spirited campaign to send a new region representative to Washington for the first time in 18 years.

While acknowledging he would be "more to the right" than Houghton, Kuhl, a moderate Republican, says he believes staying the course with President Bush on everything from the war in Iraq to continuing tax cuts will eventually reap benefits.

He says experience in both the Assembly and State Senate will serve him well in Congress as he pursues top priorities of making the homeland secure and creating new jobs.

"I know the issues. I know the people. I was born here and lived here all my life," he said in a jab at his opponent, who recently settled in Corning after growing up in the Binghamton suburbs.

"I've served with half of the people in Congress (from New York) in either the Senate or the Assembly," he said. "My associations, I think, will work well in Washington."

But Barend depicts Kuhl's legislative record far differently. She lambastes him for voting for tax increases, being part of a system producing 20 straight late budgets and for voting to make drunken-driving arrests more difficult.

"It's not the best experience to be touting right now," she said.

Before the divorce records controversy, Kuhl had paid little attention to his young opponent, relying on an enrollment advantage of 65,000 more Republicans than Democrats to coast to victory. But Barend has managed to ignite major enthusiasm in some quarters, raising almost $500,000 -- compared with Kuhl's $750,000 -- in a region producing only one successful Democrat since Reconstruction -- former Rep. Stan Lundine of Jamestown.

"If I can raise close to $500,000, that shows what I can do in Congress," she said.

A Barend victory next week, nevertheless, would be classified a major upset. Her effort is attracting none of the Democratic dollars that Assemblyman Brian M. Higgins' candidacy has brought to his congressional race against Erie County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples, the Republican candidate, in Erie and Chautauqua counties, and top GOP officials privately predict the seat will remain in their column.

But Barend points to her work as an intern for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that helped turn the former Route 17 into an interstate highway, claiming she has been able to "get things done" without being on a public payroll.

"I have contacts across the state and a willingness to do things differently," she said. "If I operated as an average Democrat, then I wouldn't be able to win."


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