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Brown-Kearns contest turns into spirited primary campaign Candidates scramble to line up votes by challenging each other's record, taking their political ads to airwaves ahead of Tuesday's balloting

In parades, ethnic festivals, block parties and just about any place a crowd gathered, Buffalo's two candidates for mayor sought votes and political momentum Saturday in a suddenly hot campaign.

Mayor Byron W. Brown and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, both vying for the Democratic nomination in Tuesday's primary election, shook hands, kissed babies, marched in the Puerto Rican Day Parade and made radio appearances in various venues throughout the city. In his capacity as a member of the Common Council, Kearns even performed a wedding ceremony for one of his staffers.

But as both men honed their considerable skills as retail politicians, they were waging a furious war over the airwaves -- where most observers believe the battle will be decided. Brown tapped into his more than $1 million campaign fund to finance that effort, while Kearns suddenly found himself flush with money from a cash infusion provided by downtown developer Carl P. Paladino.

As a result, a sense of urgency now marks a formerly sleepy campaign.

"People are open to looking at this race and want to know more about me," Kearns said while campaigning on Niagara Street. "Now it's coming down to the end."

Brown paused from his appearance in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, also on Niagara Street, to lash out at his opponent's claim during a Friday debate that the mayor's policies make Buffalo a "dying city."

"From what I hear from voters, they reject his belief that Buffalo is a dying city," he said. "Certainly First Niagara Bank doesn't think it's a dying city with the 300 new jobs it's bringing."

This year's primary race ranks as especially important because, for the first time since it was founded in the 1850s, the Republican Party will field no candidate for mayor. As a result, if Brown wins Tuesday, the race will be over. If Kearns wins, a general election contest still will result since Brown is a candidate on the Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties' lines.

Turnout is expected to be light, as it was when Brown last ran in 2005, when only about 28,000 of the city's approximately 112,000 Democrats showed up at the polls.

That means as few as 28,000 voters could end up deciding who is mayor of the city and its 270,000 residents.

Just weeks ago, Brown was considered the heavy favorite as he faced the little-known Kearns with a $1.1 million campaign fund, a City Hall army, volunteers from his political club Grassroots and all the advantages of incumbency. But the Erie County Democratic Party has made no endorsement in the contest, eliminating a substantial force that is normally active on Primary Day.

And rocked by a series of revelations by The Buffalo News highlighting his administration's handling of federal development funds -- as well as his association with Leonard Stokes, a former basketball star who ended up in the mayor's office after getting ticketed for having a stolen handicapped parking sticker -- the mayor has had to fend off a rejuvenated Kearns.

The closeness of the race was apparent among a dozen residents interviewed Saturday afternoon by The News.

"I haven't even decided," said Brian Daley of Allentown. "I guess I'm sort of dissatisfied with both candidates. I think they're acting a little childish."

"It used to be politics; now it's politricks," said Ernest Watson, a Brown supporter who lives the city's West Side.

Lesley Lannan, also of the West Side, had a "Mickey Kearns for Mayor" sign on her lawn.

"I'm pleased with his determination for change," she said of Kearns.

Bob Holmes, of South Buffalo, said he still hasn't quite decided. "It's still up in the air," he said, but added that he thinks Brown is doing a good job.

So does Russell Garnett, an East Side resident who said he plans to vote for Brown. "You can't change things overnight," he said.

Saturday, Brown's effort included a huge rally at the Rev. B.W. Smith Family Life Center at St. John Baptist Church on Michigan Avenue, where he declared his candidacy for re-election last spring. About 600 volunteers were on hand, he said, and they then fanned out to distribute literature throughout the city.

After marching in the Niagara Street parade, Brown was also scheduled to attend several block parties and ring doorbells in his door-to-door campaign. While his newest round of ads has taken a decidely negative turn, the mayor blamed his opponent for engaging the controversy surrounding Stokes. He claimed that charges that his administration gave Stokes special treatment after his arrest for possessing a stolen handicapped parking sticker have been proved false.

"When he continued throwing mud and taking this campaign in the direction of dirty politics," Brown said, "the voters in all areas of the city said to me: 'Fight back.' "

Kearns noted that help from Paladino, who initially sat out the contest, has injected new optimism into his campaign.

"It helps me with the business community because he's very well respected there," he said. "People know he is an honest person, and they know he looks at things subjectively and independently."

As of Saturday, state Board of Elections records did not reflect any new Paladino contributions to Kearns, though both he and Kearns acknowledge them.

Still, the prominent businessman has launched his own campaign ads skewering Brown on eight local radio stations. Paladino said last week that his contributions would not exceed the $64,500 he gave to Kevin J. Helfer, the Republican candidate in 2005 but that the money would be significant.

"That's me," he said last week regarding his radio campaign. "But there is also money for Mickey. Other businesses also gave significant money."

Saturday evening, Paladino was scheduled to address the Big Timers' Club, an organization of about 400 Italian-American businessmen.

State records showed no recent contributions to the Brown campaign from business interests.

The Paladino effort, Brown said, echoes the businessman's attacks on the Board of Education and business community.

"People will be closely scrutinizing his expenditures in this race," the mayor said.

Buffalo News Staff Reporter Helen Jones contributed to this report.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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