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CHEEKTOWAGA IS KEY FOR BOTH CANDIDATES <br> DEMOCRATIC TOWN LOOMS LARGE IN HOT RACE

It's almost like two great armies are marshaling on one last battlefield -- the place that after months of skirmishes will now host the decisive clash in the congressional conflict between Republican Nancy A. Naples and Democrat Brian M. Higgins.

And when one of the GOP's top generals, Gov. George E. Pataki, charged into Cheektowaga to aid Naples on Monday, it was clear the place the Senecas called "land of the crab apple" is looming as a crucial objective in the escalating war for the seat of retiring Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr.

Pataki, who has captured the overwhelmingly Democratic town three times in the past, emphasized Monday that Naples can do it, too.

"Nancy is an independent person first," the governor said outside the Cayuga Village Senior Center. "Whether it's protecting Social Security or fighting for job growth, Nancy will do what is right for the people of Cheektowaga and Western New York regardless of what party leadership thinks."

As far as strategy goes, the Higgins camp is concentrating much of its efforts there, too.

"Cheektowaga is the key," said one top Higgins aide.

Indeed, Cheektowaga is looming large in both candidates' war plans for several reasons:

Quinn, a Republican whose name Naples invokes at every chance, easily won the town in most of his elections.

Higgins was defeated in Cheektowaga by West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark in the September Democratic primary.

Naples handily beat Higgins there when they faced off for county comptroller in 1993.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 31,805 to 13,284 in what is expected to be a big local year for Democrats.

Indeed, Naples seemed to score points with some of the folks at the Williamstowne Senior Center on Monday morning. While many of them said they will vote for Democrat John F. Kerry for president next week, others said they would consider Republican Naples for Congress.

"She's doing pretty well with her job here," said Florence Ciezka, who expects to vote for Kerry. "She did the things she said she would do."

But as Pataki schmoozed with almost 100 seniors (who stood in respect as he entered and broke into "God Bless America" as he left), he was emphasizing key elements of the Naples effort. Like Naples, he consistently used the word "independent" to describe her and promised she would stand up to party leaders -- even though she already is assured a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert if she is elected.

The governor compared her at both stops to Quinn, whom he called a "great congressman" who declared his independence from party leaders and put district concerns first.

He also jumped on the escalating controversy over this year's unavailable flu shots, pointing to Naples as someone who can address the situation in Congress even as some blame the Bush administration. And he said Higgins' Assembly record is another reason the town's overwhelming Democratic majority should again turn to a Republican.

"Nancy's opponent has voted time and again in Albany with his party's leadership; leadership that has blocked getting the death penalty back on the books," Pataki said, touching a hot-button issue that helped him win conservative, ethnic enclaves like Cheektowaga during his first run for governor in 1994.

But Higgins was quick to strike back. He said that while Naples and the governor blame the Assembly for most of the state's ills, a Republican governor and a Republican Senate also run New York State.

"It's interesting that when it's convenient for Nancy Naples to use the governor, she forgets that she has been blaming his government during these past months for Erie County's fiscal meltdown," he said. "I challenge the governor to answer the charges that Nancy Naples has made against his government and his leadership in Albany."

The Higgins campaign also charged that Naples ducked Hastert's Monday appearance in Rochester for 29th District Republican candidate John R. Kuhl.

"Nancy Naples doesn't seem to want to showcase her attachment to the Republican leadership in Washington, who kowtow to millionaires and continually leave working families from Western New York in the dust," said spokeswoman Suzanne Anziska. "Maybe Ms. Naples doesn't want to admit to the voters that she'll be a rubber stamp for George Bush's right-wing agenda."

Still, Cheektowaga will continue to prove a major target of efforts from both camps over the next few days as Naples tries to pick off independent Democrats and Higgins tries to lure back "Quinn Democrats."

"Everybody realizes it's a huge area that will probably be key to the race," said the Higgins aide. "If the Democrats stay on the line, he'll be OK. If not, it's going to be difficult."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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