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Now for the real heat

It's a harsh dose of reality for Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan this weekend as he returns from a few days in a Caribbean paradise to the cold, snow and hardball politics of Western New York.

Now, he starts down a path veering far from paradise. Because whomever he endorses for county executive this year, it's guaranteed to throw the Erie County Democratic Party into its worst intramural squabble since the Great War of 1995, when Dave Swarts and Dennis Gorski squared off in an intense primary battle over the same post.

When he makes his choice either later this week or possibly next week, many observers expect him to paw through the clutter and choose former Deputy County Executive Jim Keane. But nothing is certain on that score.

So after a week of choosing only between a mai tai or a pina colada, Lenihan now faces a host of real choices and real problems. They include:

* His quest for a "fresh face" remains complicated. Many sources report Lenihan has worked to clear the Democratic field for Comptroller Mark Poloncarz by asking Keane to back off.

But Keane says otherwise.

"That has not happened," he said last week. "Neither has it even been remotely suggested."

The Poloncarz idea still has lots of support at Headquarters, and Lenihan's own polling tells him that. The problem is whether Poloncarz could prevail in a crowded field in which Keane and West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark have already noted substantial fund raising success.

* Lenihan has to ponder his own political future too. If he goes with Keane, his late conversion may do him no favors in a Keane camp supported by Mayor Byron Brown and his City Hall cohorts, who already maintain a tenuous relationship with the chairman.

* Lenihan's support for City Judge Tim Franczyk and City Hall's preference for City Judge Jim McLeod presents a choice for Gov. Eliot Spitzer as he prepares to fill a vacancy in Erie County Court. Kathy Hochul, Lenihan's candidate for county clerk, won Spitzer's nod last week. Will he next look toward Brown and his preference?

* Then there are Lenihan's old friends in the Independence Party. It used to be the Dems could count on Chairman Tony Orsini to fall in line. Heck, Independence petitions were even prepared in Democratic Headquarters.

But Orsini vows he's now his own man, and points to his Clark endorsement as proof. That move did not exactly fit into Lenihan's plans.

* Speaking of Orsini, he's none too thrilled that Keane stopped payment on a $1,000 contribution to his political action committee immediately after Clark won the Independence endorsement.

"What was it? Just a bribe?" Orsini fumed last week.

Though old hands can't ever remember a candidate reneging on such a contribution, Keane counter-fumed that he had good reason.

"He lied to me and indicated to me right up to his [March 22] fund raiser that the endorsement of that party was very much in play," Keane said. "I subsequently found out he had already called his executive board together for the purpose of endorsing Clark.

"I'm certainly not giving him money to use against me," he added.

* And how 'bout those Conservatives? They're waiting for Lenihan to make his move, with any nod toward Keane bolstering his considerable support there. Nevertheless, Republican candidate Chris Collins has made strong overtures to Conservative leaders -- some of whom like him a lot.

* Lots of people close to Lenihan say his choice will ultimately be guided by one criterion: he wants to win.

* Mai tai anyone? Or would you prefer the pina colada?

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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