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N.Y. definitely Clinton country, but Obama's trying for traction Grass roots aren't yet solid as groups try to get in sync

Sen. Barack Obama last week gave the political world 25 million reasons to pay attention to his presidential campaign -- but in Buffalo, Obama '08 is a fledgling effort spearheaded by grass-roots groups that haven't talked to one another.

Obama announced last week that he had raised $25 million for his effort in the first quarter, proving that he's likely to provide a stiff challenge to the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who raised just $1 million more.

In Western New York, Clinton has nailed down the support of most top Democrats, while the Obama challenge thus far consists of disparate efforts started by former Buffalo Common Council President George K. Arthur, former Council Member Robert Quintana and others.

Told of Arthur's effort, Quintana said: "We haven't connected with them at all."

The nascent nature of the Obama effort comes as no surprise to political pros, who don't expect the charismatic Illinois senator to expend much effort to try to win the New York primary.

The reason: Clinton is just too popular in the state. A Quinnipiac University poll of Democratic voters last week showed Clinton with a lead of 30 percentage points over Obama and former Vice President Al Gore, who tied for second. Gore is not an announced candidate.

In contrast, an average of seven national polls taken since March 21 shows Clinton with a lead of 12.6 percentage points over Obama, RealClearPolitics.com reported.

"For Obama to waste his time in New York would be stupid," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Nevertheless, Obama's chief spokesman, Buffalo native Bill Burton, said Obama plans to try to win New York.

"There's a lot of grass-roots support in Western New York, the whole State of New York and the entire country," Burton said. "We are not going to leave any part of the country uncontested."

Support for Obama is bubbling up in the Buffalo area.

His Web site shows that local activist Kenneth Sherman is planning a gathering in Higher Grounds Coffee House in Amherst at 7:30 p.m. April 17, when he hopes to organize a delegate slate for Obama in Western New York.

Meanwhile, the group formed by Quintana and local political organizer David Cordero -- BuffaloWNY Supporters for Obama -- will hold a meet-and-greet at 6:30 p.m. April 24 in the Polish Cadets Hall in Buffalo. And Arthur has been talking informally with Joe D. Davis, a retiree long active in local politics, about putting together a pro-Obama effort.

Those grass-roots efforts stand in sharp contrast with the machinelike Clinton campaign.

Clinton's campaign Web site lists no grass-roots events in the Buffalo area -- but the campaign has already lined up the support of Buffalo's mayor, its two Democratic members of the House and at least one prominent local fundraiser: former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.

"I'm going to raise a quarter-million dollars plus," said Pigeon, whose ties to the Clintons date from Bill Clinton's 1992 bid for the White House.

Pigeon was unaware of the local Obama campaign efforts, but he acknowledged that the Illinois senator was proving to be a strong candidate.

Terming Obama's fundraising "very impressive," Pigeon added: "From my point of view, this was always going to be a close race. Obama is very formidable, very substantial. He's certainly a very bright guy, but in the end, Hillary Clinton is better prepared to be president."

Of course, that's not the way the local Obama supporters see things. Neither Arthur nor Quintana is very impressed with Clinton.

"She really hasn't been that good a senator," said Arthur, who complained that he could not get a letter from Clinton's office supporting a charity in which he's involved.

Quintana said, "I have met Hillary Clinton at least 10 times, and in all those times, I've never felt that sincerity or warmth."

In contrast, "Obama provides a whole new outlook, a new type of leadership," Quintana added.

Arthur agreed.

"I think he's a very attractive candidate," Arthur said. "He would be good for the country. . . . And it's a breakthrough as far as the African-American community is concerned."

Political pros acknowledged that Obama -- who has written two best-selling autobiographies, "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams From My Father" -- has struck a chord with a part of the electorate looking for a dramatic change in the tone of the nation's politics.

But they expect that chord to be drowned out by a pro-Clinton chorus led by the state's Democratic establishment and big-money Democratic fundraisers downstate.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant in Manhattan, puts it this way: "The sense in New York City is that a few people are trickling to Obama but that New York is Hillary country."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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