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THE BATTLE FOR CHEEKTOWAGA

At the beginning of an interview at the Democratic National Convention in Boston a few months ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton turned the tables and fired off the first question.

How are things going, she asked, in the contest to succeed Jack Quinn?

The senator's question indicated a special interest. She promised right then she would work to help the Democrat who would face Republican Nancy Naples, most likely expecting all along that Democrat would be Brian Higgins. And there is no question Clinton has stayed true to her promise.

Just witness her scheduled Saturday appearance on Higgins' behalf in Cheektowaga, a crucial battleground in one of the fiercest House races in the entire United States. This is big-time Democratic turf -- a town Clinton won in 2000 but a place where Republicans can and do win.

It's especially enticing for a candidate like Naples, who beat Higgins there during the 1993 contest for county comptroller. In a hard-working enclave like Cheektowaga, candidates like Naples -- who campaign on ferreting out waste and fraud -- are at least worth a listen.

And during Naples' Monday visit to two senior centers with another Cheektowaga winner -- Gov. George Pataki -- every indication said Cheektowagans are, indeed, listening.

That's why Higgins' Clinton counterpunch this weekend proves so intriguing. Since most observers believe Cheektowaga and its large voting base will prove the deciding factor in Tuesday's congressional contest, the senator's enormous influence could prove key in bringing home all the Cheektowaga Democrats who have been known to stray off the line for people like Pataki and Quinn.

"Those Democrats should not be taken for granted," said one Higgins insider. "We need to bring home the Quinn Democrats."

But Clinton's efforts for Higgins are extending far beyond Cheektowaga. She opened her Washington home to a Higgins event on Oct. 4 that raised about $100,000. A Clinton-sponsored Buffalo fund raiser on Oct. 16 netted another $100,000. And Higgins returned to Buffalo almost $50,000 richer after the senator threw a Tuesday fund-raising affair at a trendy Manhattan joint called the Dream Hotel.

"She's been great," says Higgins.

That's not to say that other top Dems like Sen. Chuck Schumer or state Chairman Denny Farrell haven't been involved. Or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. They have -- big time.

In addition, Clinton is helping other favorite Democrats like Samara Barend, who is facing State Sen. Randy Kuhl for the Southern Tier seat of retiring Rep. Amo Houghton. The senator plans to campaign for her former campaign aide this weekend, too.

But while nobody associated with the senator will even allude to it, there is still a school of thought that says Hillary Clinton holds special interest in the Quinn seat -- especially after Quinn broke with President Bill Clinton in late 1998 and voted to impeach her husband.

Several well-placed sources reported at the time that there was deep resentment against Quinn -- an official presidential pal. That's just one of the reasons, the thinking went then, that the Clintons and Gores chose Buffalo (to be specific, Quinn's district) to rally 20,000 supporters at HSBC Arena in January of 1999, immediately after the impeachment vote.

"You can go back to that 1999 visit; there was a feeling of breach of trust," the Higgins insider said last week. "Since then, Hillary has had this on her radar screen."

And as Quinn appears in the Naples ads that will saturate the airwaves this weekend, Higgins and Naples are not the only New York pols squaring off.

While nobody will acknowledge it, another old contest between Hillary Clinton and Jack Quinn is getting its share of attention, too.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com