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Branding could decide mayoral race

Let the branding begin.

Politicians are products. They try to brand themselves as a cross between Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa in the minds of voters and to slap the hates-puppies-and-kids label on the other guy.

Kevin Helfer didn't waste any time pasting the twin taints of "Joel Giambra" and "status quo" on Byron Brown. Brown was still beaming after Tuesday's win in the Democratic mayoral primary when an ad from Helfer, the Republican candidate, hit the airwaves.

The TV ad noted that Brown took campaign money from the politically toxic county executive. It hammered the state senator for his support from city unions and other interests that "brought Buffalo to its knees."

It was the first shot in the general election campaign, and it was a hard one.

It had to be.

Helfer is a Republican running for mayor in a city with five times as many Democrats. Although he's a former Common Council member, nearly half the people in a News poll early this year didn't know who he was. Of those who did, less than 40 percent had a good feeling about him. In the same poll, seven of every 10 people felt warm and fuzzy about Brown. Those aren't good numbers for Helfer.

Helfer has seven weeks to brand Brown as part of the problem and to brand himself as a savior to the legion of folks who don't really know him.

If Helfer doesn't pull it off, he will be saying, "Congratulations, Mayor Brown," on election night.

Brown, meanwhile, has to shake the status-quo tag and to define Helfer as a bad seed to all the folks who don't know him, before Helfer defines himself.

"I think it's going to be a negative campaign, about negatively defining the other person," said Kevin Hardwick, Canisius College political science professor.

Another Democrat already has unintentionally helped Helfer.

Civic leader Kevin Gaughan's underfunded-yet-spirited primary run cracked Brown's aura of invincibility.

Gaughan won four of the nine Council districts and pulled 36 percent of the vote. The number inflates to 41 percent when added with fellow reform candidate Steve Calvaneso's total. (Calvaneso dropped out days before the primary, but his name stayed on the ballot.)

Despite a huge edge in money and the backing of the party machine, Brown got less than 60 percent of the primary vote. It's not the number of invincibility.

"The [primary vote] was totally encouraging to me," said Helfer. "[Gaughan] ran a wonderful race, for being underfunded."

Gaughan also started the branding of Brown as the status-quo candidate, unintentionally helping Helfer. In a Channel 2/Survey USA poll of 619 registered voters the day after the primary, Brown had a 46 percent favorable rating -- a big drop from his 71 percent in The News poll in January.

"Gaughan was somewhat successful pinning the [status quo] label on Brown," said Hardwick. "Helfer, with more money, will try to drive it through the roof."

Indeed, Gaughan did better against the party-anointed candidate than Gene Fahey did in a similar race, the '93 Democratic mayoral primary. Fahey faced Tony Masiello, who, like Brown, was the endorsed candidate with more money. Fahey got 35 percent of the vote against Masiello, less than Gaughan managed against Brown -- and Fahey, as Council majority leader, had the advantage of a political office.

Although Gaughan's run dented Brown, it is still Brown's race to lose. There's no guarantee that anti-Brown Democrats will vote for Helfer, a Republican.

Brown is a personable guy whose appeal goes beyond his ethnic base. And he has $600,000 to spend. He will use it to sell a bright and shiny image to voters -- and to brand the relatively unknown Helfer as a puppy hater.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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