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Small-county Dems band together

Next weekend, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be off to Iowa or New Hampshire or some other place that for some strange reason determines our presidents. And if that's her gig these days, that's where she should be.

She will not, however, attend the Democratic Rural Caucus meeting in Jamestown next weekend (she will send a video message instead), even if it would be a good place for her to visit and say thank you.

The DRC represents Democrats from 41 smaller counties in New York that often get the back of the hand from the big city organizations. If Erie County Dems sometimes feel overwhelmed by the New York City bunch, imagine the feeling of Democrats from places like Allegany or Schoharie or St. Lawrence counties.

So a few years ago they banded together to collectively flex their muscles. The result is an early test of strength for statewide candidates, who are now forced to address issues of concern to rural Democrats and then compete for support in a straw poll. It's one of the first bursts of momentum experienced by candidates like Clinton in 2000 or Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2006.

For Clinton, support from places devoid of skyscrapers and traffic jams was the key to her victory over Rep. Rick Lazio in 2000. Despite widespread speculation that the first lady would prove an upstate flop, she didn't. She actually prevailed in rural strongholds like St. Lawrence County, while pulling even or close to even in lots of other places.

In fact, Clinton's 52 to 48 percent loss throughout upstate was more like a victory. Sure, she was expected to prevail in New York City and the big upstate counties. But her strength in the sticks, in places represented by the Democratic Rural Caucus, was the real secret behind her 2000 victory.

And by the time re-election rolled around in 2006, Clinton won most of those Republican-dominated counties. This time she took 61 percent of the upstate vote. She increased her percentages in New York City and the metro suburbs as well, and carried 58 of New York's 62 counties, compared to 15 counties in 2000.

The point of all this is not to champion the DRC or anyone's candidacy. We don't do that here. But we do point out that the hinterlands can make a difference, and that if Clinton can prevail in St. Lawrence County in 2000, she shouldn't fear normally Republican states in 2008.

The senator herself obliquely highlighted that fact during a visit to The Buffalo News in early 2005, when she dissected the just-completed presidential election and was looking ahead to 2008.

Sen. John Kerry, she said, worked hard to rally his Democratic base in the big cities of Ohio, while writing off the outlying areas willing to pull the Democratic lever if given the right reason. Ditto for Nevada, where Kerry triumphed in big cities like Las Vegas and Reno, but lost the state in the hinterland vote.

"If you look at the battleground states, the Kerry campaign did what they set out to do in the urban areas," she said then. "But they got killed in the rural areas."

She recalled that the experts told her in 2000 she could count on four out of five of New York City's boroughs along with the big upstate cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Anything else, they told her, was a "waste of time."

"But I looked at the numbers, and the numbers didn't support that," she said. "I was successful in really shrinking the margin against me."

Back on that 2005 morning, you could almost hear Clinton thinking about 2008. And even though she won't personally visit Jamestown next weekend, you can bet she knows how she got where she is, and how she'll get where she's going.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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