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GOING WHERE VOTES COUNT THE MOST <br> AREA WORKERS FOLLOW THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL TO CRUCIAL 'SWING STATES'

After four years at the helm of Buffalo's largest law firm, Dianne Bennett now works morning, noon and night in this crossroads farm town, which is home to 13,485 people and, it seems, infinite numbers of pumpkins.

No, she's not out of her gourd. She's just determined to help John Kerry get elected president Tuesday.

"I just think George W. Bush has been the worst president I've ever heard of," explained Bennett, 62, who retired from the Hodgson Russ law firm earlier this year and now serves as the Kerry field coordinator in Pickaway County, home of the famous Circleville Pumpkin Show.

Bennett is by no means the only Buffalonian to take to the campaign trail where it matters most: in the dozen or so "swing states" that will determine who wins the presidency.

With Kerry far ahead in New York and both campaigns largely ignoring the state, dozens of his Buffalo-area supporters -- and a smaller number of Bush backers -- have gone to where the action is.

Kerry campaigners from Buffalo travel to Erie, Pa., one of the hottest battlegrounds, every weekend. Buffalo labor unions have set up shop there, and one local union has sent representatives as far away as Nevada to help turn out the vote.

Meanwhile, the president has raised $457,820 in Western New York -- $150,901 more than Kerry. And Bush can count on a handful of local loyalists like Michelle Fraser, who travels from Buffalo to Erie whenever she can to campaign for him.

"I just think it's my civic responsibility to do whatever I can," said Fraser, 29, who teaches social studies and history at Grover Cleveland High School and thinks Bush's foreign policy will keep America safe.

Bennett would beg to differ.

She long considered herself apolitical, but the Iraq war and other Bush policies so enraged Bennett that she went to work to try to defeat the president. She and her husband, William Graebner, teamed with Buffalo lawyer Alice Kryzan and her husband, Bob Berger, to put together a huge fund-raiser for Kerry in Buffalo in July.

And when the pumpkins got ripe, Bennett headed to Circleville as one of the "Kerry Travelers": volunteers who go where the Democratic National Committee sends them.

She does a little bit of everything. She coordinates the activities of the Kerry volunteers in Pickaway County and calls voters in the evenings. And she marched through town last week with other Kerry volunteers who toted a life-size cut-out of Kerry, all to tout the candidate to the thousands of people at the Pumpkin Show.

Meanwhile, Kryzan is a Kerry Traveler in Youngstown. Alison Fleischmann, owner of Par Avion in Buffalo, spreads the anti-Bush gospel in Chillicothe, south of Circleville. And Glenn Pittman, 32, of Angola, works for Kerry in Kent.

"I was looking for a useful way to spend my time," Pittman said. "And I said to myself: What would be more useful than getting George W. Bush out of office?"

On the Republican side, some activists seem well on their way to becoming political pros.

Nick Sinatra, the 23-year-old son of the owner of Sinatra's Restaurant in Buffalo, started working on the Bush campaign in Erie in March. Now he's in Harrisburg as Pennsylvania field director, one of the top positions in the state campaign.

"I really feel passionately about the president, about the Republican Party and its ideals," said Sinatra, a Yale University graduate. "For me personally, the reason I'm here working 16 hours a day is because of the president's War on Terror and his stance on the social, cultural and moral issues."

Similarly, when Robert Zapesochny, 22, graduated from the University at Buffalo last spring, he moved to Erie to work for the president.

"A president needs a big vision to fight terror," he said. "I like the fact that Bush is talking the tough talk, calling evil by its name."

Zapesochny is a former member of the College Republicans, whose Buffalo-area members are also mobilizing for Bush. About a dozen College Republicans from St. Bonaventure University will head to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to campaign for the president next weekend.

And Dan Centinello, a Canisius College student who is chairman of New York College Republicans, led an entourage of about 15 to northeastern Ohio last weekend to hand out campaign literature and help with the phones.

While Western New Yorkers -- especially in the wealthier suburbs -- donated more money to Bush than Kerry, the Democratic nominee appears to have many more local residents going the extra miles for him.

Kerry volunteer Jinni Basil of Cheektowaga began organizing weekend trips to Erie late in the summer. At first, only about a dozen people went, but last weekend 60 people made the 98-mile journey by bus to go door-to-door and call voters.

Buffalo-area activists from the United Steelworkers of America and other unions have been doing the same sort of thing in Erie every day for weeks.

"I'm optimistic," said Jim Shaughnessy of Cheektowaga, a USW official. "You hear some people talk about the gun issue or abortion, but a lot are against the war.".

Several Western New Yorkers from another union, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, are taking a slightly different approach.

Since September, they've been working in battleground states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin as part of America Coming Together's effort to register and educate voters.

"Our primary job is to give the Bush administration a very hard time here in Reno," said Michelle Marto, communications director for Local 1199 in Buffalo, who's now in Nevada.

While many of the union activists stay in hotels, other volunteers find a bed wherever they can. Fleischmann stays with a college friend. Bennett shares a once-vacant house in Circleville with another volunteer. Zapesochny lives off his savings and rents an apartment in Erie.

And all of them said it's worth the trouble.

"I had been working 60 hours a week, but it's over 100 now," Zapesochny said. "But this is the kind of job where you don't look at the clock. Both sides are doing this because both sides believe it will make a difference."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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