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Lenihan will announce his choice for county executive within days

Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan will endorse a candidate for county executive within the next few days in a move expected to have profound effects on his future as chairman.

Lenihan has offered no hint about which one of five potential candidates he will anoint for the Democratic nomination, but all are working furiously to influence his decision.

And since no candidate has a lock on the nomination or on winning in November, Lenihan's decision is viewed as a gamble that will define him either as a crafty genius or a miscalculating dunce.

"At the end of all this, it will either be Len the mastermind or Len the fool," said one political leader who asked not to be identified.

Some of the forces involved include:

* Supporters of Paul T. Clark, who are emphasizing the West Seneca supervisor's experience as an administrator and certified public accountant, as well as his hefty campaign account. They also point out that Clark has already snared the important Independence Party endorsement, giving him at least one line for the November general election.

* * Former Deputy County Executive James P. Keane is given a good chance of gaining Lenihan's nod by many of his supporters, some of whom say the decision is already made. But others say Lenihan is reluctant to back either Keane or Clark, still seeking a "fresh face" to run against Christopher C. Collins, the Republican candidate, who is a relative newcomer.

The possibility that Lenihan will still persuade County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz to run, providing the political newcomer he seeks to counter the "baggage" sources say his polling links to Clark and Keane.

Some sources say Poloncarz has already turned down the race, while others say the comptroller could still decide to run if Lenihan clears the field of Keane and Clark.

Poloncarz did not return several calls seeking comment.

* Both Keane and Clark have substantial support in the Conservative Party, which is not expected to act until May. If Lenihan chooses Clark, Con-servative sources say the party will follow, giving the supervisor four possible lines in November -- potentially including Working Families.

However, a Democratic nod for Poloncarz could give new hope to Collins for Conservative backing, while a decision for Keane could set off an internal Conservative struggle.

* The potential exists for Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's political forces to intervene for Lenihan and attempt to entice Keane and Clark out of the race in favor of Poloncarz.

"There have been entreaties made to the governor's office to get involved, and the governor is yet to act," said one Spitzer source. "But I would not say the governor won't act."

Lenihan has close relations with Spitzer and recently brought him up to date on political matters over coffee at Tim Hortons in West Seneca. But the governor also has a strong ally in Mayor Byron W. Brown, a Keane supporter, and wishes to avoid any confrontation with the Brown forces.

* Some supporters of Amherst Council Member Daniel J. Ward and Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli hold out hope that Lenihan will turn to them in a surprise move.

* There is also some enthusiasm for Lenihan to declare an "open primary" in which all contestants could compete for the nomination in September.

"A couple of people have mentioned that, but my inclination is that it's unlikely," Lenihan said.

If Spitzer does get involved, those close to the situation expect it will be behind the scenes and stemming from a fear that upstate's largest county -- overwhelmingly Democratic -- could remain in Republican hands in view of Collins' expected strong challenge.

Lenihan has remained tight-lipped about his intentions, especially since he scheduled a $2,000-per-person fundraiser for his Chairman's Club in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo on Friday night. Most party sources say he did not want to make a decision until all competing factions had purchased tickets.

Lenihan has said only that he will make a decision before the end of April. Though the party endorsement is considered a key boost to any candidate, most observers expect a primary will ensue.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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