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Nancy Naples couldn't help noticing Tuesday that "this is where it all began," the Rath Building plaza where she announced her candidacy for comptroller almost 12 years ago.

That's where a cautiously optimistic Tom Reynolds, then chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, introduced a nervous and unknown Wall Streeter as his candidate to succeed the legendary Alfreda Slominski. Naples won, became a power in her own right and ran the GOP's grip on the comptroller's office to its current 30-year mark.

This time, however, Naples returned to the Rath Building plaza to announce her retirement from politics. She seemed defiant, listing a host of accomplishments that saved the county millions of dollars during her tenure. At the same time, she appeared weary of the cutthroat politics consuming Erie County over the past few months. She called for a return of "civility" to the process.

Only a few months after losing a congressional bid by the slimmest of margins -- 2,800 votes in a district with 70,000 more Democrats than Republicans -- this extremely successful politician seemed relieved to be exiting the local political scene.

You might say Naples symbolizes Erie County politics right now. She demonstrated that a Republican can prove viable in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County -- if the Republican carries credentials and can do the job.

But she also sums up Erie County voters' frustration with green budgets, red budgets, park closings and layoffs. When Legislators Al DeBenedetti and George Holt, as well as Budget Director Joe Passafiume, all experienced tax problems in the midst of the fiscal crisis, voters seemed fed up when The Buffalo News revealed that Naples -- the comptroller, of all people -- also was late in paying her taxes.

"That's what was most devastating," said one Republican ally. "She was still supposed to be a cut above."

Naples' departure also sums up the state of the Erie County Republican Party. Her constant clashes with a fellow Republican, County Executive Joel Giambra, contributed to her departure. Giambra's refusal to support Naples during most of her congressional campaign is still not forgiven by many Republicans here and across the state. The result is an intra-party mess.

While Democrats smell blood, the GOP is scrambling. Republican Chairman Bob Davis says he will form a search committee to find a private-sector type backed by the same kind of sparkling resume Naples brought in 1993. Translation: "We don't have a comptroller candidate."

Maybe that's why Davis and much of his crew are looking forward to Saturday's confab at the City Campus of Erie Community College. He plans a "Governing Principles Convention" that will chart a course for the party in the years ahead.

"This is not a public relations piece," Davis said. "This is very serious in terms of defining the message of the Republican Party and what the Republican Party intends to do to move this community forward."

Translation again: what the party must do to rebound from its split with Giambra.

With Giambra all but divorced from the GOP and with Naples leaving the scene, Davis realizes the party is at a crossroads. If it is to continue the successes it has noted over the years, it has to find a new way.

Some say that means running real Republicans instead of recycled Democrats. Others are already gunning for Davis, blaming him for absorbing Giambra into the fold.

But with area voters in their most ornery mood in generations, Davis knows the party must act. And that means one more translation: He must do something to maintain the GOP's viability in Democratic Erie County, as well as his own survival.