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Powers gets a early start

Most people around Western New York -- even those who closely follow its politics -- are more focused this weekend on hot dogs, hamburgers and the Fourth of July than the 2008 congressional election.

Not Jonathan Powers.

The 28-year-old Army veteran of the Iraq War declared his candidacy last week for the 26th District seat held by Republican Tom Reynolds, and the race is on -- even if nobody really cares right now.

Nevertheless, Powers carries some instant bona fides into this race. He grew up in Clarence, played football there, earned the Eagle Scout rank and joined the Army after John Carroll University.

An aura of youthful enthusiasm surrounds him, and his war record invites comparisons to a young JFK.

"I'll be the first to admit I joined the Army to just do my time and see the world," he said over lunch last week. "But not until Sept. 11 did I really understand what it meant to be a soldier."

That's because as an artillery captain in Baghdad and Najef he saw his share of bad stuff -- including the loss of four comrades. He could have pursued his goal of teaching social studies upon his return, but instead went back to Iraq -- on his own -- as a civilian. He founded War Kids Relief, a nonprofit organization aimed at providing Iraqi children with the resources and education to keep them out of terrorism.

It's part of his contention that America's Iraq policy is failing because it relies too much on military power without considering the nation's social, economic and political needs.

"Because of mismanagement and lack of leadership, the ball there has been dropped," he said.

Powers is not unlike others who have returned from life-changing experiences ready to take on the world. But dethroning one of the most powerful Republicans in area history has eluded a long list of hopefuls before him.

So why is this candidacy even remotely interesting?

Mainly because industrialist Jack Davis seriously damaged Reynolds over the course of the last two campaigns, losing only 52 to 48 percent in 2006. But Davis had lots of his own money to devote to the cause. Powers must go out and raise it.

"I'm keeping my options open just like last time," Davis said last week. "In '06 I didn't announce until the end of March. I don't see any need to be out there early, and I don't need to raise money."

In addition, Davis says Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan has promised him the endorsement again if he wants it.

Lenihan is far from making any commitments at this early stage, but doubts Davis will wage a third campaign. If Davis steps aside in '08, Lenihan likes what he sees in the army veteran from Clarence.

"Jon has a great story for such a young man," Lenihan said. "If he winds up being our candidate, he will be very formidable."

Powers says he has already raised more than $100,000 in events around the country, and thinks he can gather enough to compete with Reynolds -- one of the best political fund raisers in the business. But so far he labels himself primarily as "fiscally conservative and socially progressive" -- ducking answers on hotbed issues like abortion.

"I'm an Irish Catholic and that's something I struggle with," he said. "Soon I'll be in a position to make a decision on it."

Memo to Powers: That's an issue on which an opinion is usually required].

Still, it appears he is about to test the question of whether or not Davis has made Reynolds vulnerable. Even Powers knows he faces a tough assignment.

"I realize I'm going into a major league ballgame," he said.

Welcome to the major leagues, Jon Powers.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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