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Now, the main event With two political heavyweights left standing, the Brown-Helfer contest to control City Hall immediately takes a pointedly personal turn

A new Byron W. Brown hit the campaign trail Wednesday, substituting fiery campaign attacks for the genteel demeanor that marked his successful primary campaign for mayor of Buffalo.

That new development, many campaign observers say, suggests strongly that the Democratic nominee knows that he is in for a tough challenge from Republican Kevin J. Helfer.

The general campaign dawned Wednesday with Brown referring to Helfer's criticisms as lies, and Helfer firing back with accusations that the state senator is tied too closely to special interests.

"You've got one candidate that's lying," Brown said.

"Nothing makes me madder than someone calling me a liar when they don't have the facts to back it up," Helfer replied.

That kicked off a campaign already displaying a new dynamic and accompanying questions, including:

Nearly 41 percent of Democrats voted against Brown in the
primary.

Where will they land Nov. 8?

Helfer's apparent victory over Brown on the Conservative line, providing momentum and an alternative line for Democrats to cast a Helfer vote.

Will Democrats opt for a line with long ties to Republicans and President Bush?

Charles J. Flynn apparently winning the Independence line for the November election.

Will he diffuse the anti-Brown vote or make little difference?

The 22 percent turnout in the primary election, signaling vast indifference.

Will a low turnout in the African-American community cause a problem for Brown in November?

Even before primary day ended, the election took on a harder edge, when the Helfer camp bought an 11 p.m. television ad that targeted Brown's campaign contributions from special interests, including $3,300 that the ad said was donated by Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

Twelve hours later, Brown turned the ad into the first campaign issue.

"Seconds after my Democratic primary win last night, Joel Giambra's former $120,000-a-year commissioner of social services began with a very negative campaign ad linking me with his former boss, Joel Giambra," Brown said. "I think you're going to see a campaign in which Kevin Helfer tries to distort and lie about my record, and I will tell the truth about his."

Helfer fired back during an afternoon news conference in the driveway of his University District home.

"If he says we're lying, tell me what we're lying about," Helfer said, contending that Brown has accepted campaign contributions from every special interest group, from every group that wants to preserve the status quo.

"He wants to run away from the facts. The fact is, he took $3,300 [in campaign contributions] from Joel Giambra."

> Focus on Giambra ties

If the first hours of the general election campaign for mayor were any indication, Brown and Helfer seem to be waging a battle to see who can distance himself the furthest from Giambra.

Brown called it laughable that Helfer would try to link him to Giambra.

"Kevin Helfer was a department head in the Giambra administration that created the worst fiscal mess in the history of Erie County," Brown said in a lengthy telephone interview. "The county is still suffering from the Giambra-Helfer mess. I think that speaks volumes about how Kevin Helfer would lead."

Helfer replied that he stepped away from the Giambra administration when he didn't like the direction in which it was heading.

"Not too many people step away from a $120,000 job," he said.

Vowing to be bold and aggressive in his campaign, Helfer said he wanted to talk about Brown's record in the State Senate, citing what he called his 130 votes to raise taxes and his votes to approve $4.7 billion in taxes.

"I don't think that's nasty," he said about such campaigning. "I think that's a campaign talking about the facts. . . . I'm looking forward to making sure everyone knows his record."

When asked to talk about the choice facing Buffalo voters in November, Brown played up the Democratic-Republican issue, while Helfer framed the election more in terms of the status quo versus change.

> 'Not a coronation'

"I think the clearest, sharpest difference will be the real difference between Democrats and Republicans and the real negative consequences when a Republican is elected," Brown said. "There's no more glaring example than what Joel Giambra has done to Erie County, and Kevin Helfer was a major part of that."

Asked how he could overcome a 5-1 Democratic edge in registration in the city, Helfer said he has done it three times before as a Republican.

"We're going to overcome it, because I think people want change," he said. "They're sick and tired of the status quo and machine politics. . . . This campaign is an election to be decided by voters, not a coronation to be decided by kingmakers."

Helfer was asked whether the gloves were off in the mayoral campaign.

"We will take the gloves off, but we're going to hit above the belt," he said.

Although Brown scored a decisive victory over Democratic challenger Kevin P. Gaughan on Tuesday, Helfer's apparent historic victory as a write-in candidate on the Conservative line is pumping new life into his campaign. While nobody is predicting that the former Common Council member will beat Brown in the heavily Democratic city, the fact that he wrested the Conservative line from Brown as a write-in candidate gives Democrats an alternative line to vote for Helfer and provides him with important momentum.

> Conservative line's value

Top Republican strategists also think the Conservative line will generate the kind of campaign contributions Helfer will need to challenge Brown on the airwaves.

"I think the money will come in," said Ralph J. Vanner, vice chairman of the Erie County Republican Party. "I'll be shocked if it does not."

Indeed, GOP politicians such as former Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr. point out that Republicans can win in Buffalo, even if it requires a perfect political storm of unprecedented proportions.

"The fact that Byron's numbers were not off the charts, and Kevin has this alternative lever on the ballot, gives Helfer a real opportunity here," said Quinn, who regularly captured Democratic enclaves such as South Buffalo in winning six congressional elections.

The former congressman, now a Washington lobbyist, said many Buffalonians are familiar with the Conservative line and don't mind seeking it as an alternative to voting Republican.

"If I'm Kevin Helfer on the day after primary day, I'd be pretty satisfied," Quinn said.

Still, Helfer acknowledges that he faces daunting odds. The city holds a 5-1 Democratic advantage in enrollment, Republican officeholders are virtually nonexistent, and Buffalo has not chosen a GOP mayor since voting for Chester A. Kowal in 1961.

> Big names expected

Joseph F. Crangle, a former Erie County and New York State Democratic chairman, envisions big names such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer venturing into Buffalo to preach the Democratic gospel on Brown's behalf. They will try to link Helfer with Bush and his policies and label the election a referendum, Crangle says.

"It's historic to be able to win a write-in vote, but the question is, what's the effect?" Crangle asked.

"I don't think the Republican-Conservative line wins a mayoral race in a Democratic city."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com

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