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Sen. Grisanti airs ads; Democrats eye rival

State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti is airing television ads six months before the November election in a sign the freshman Republican's seat is already commanding more money and attention than any other in New York.

Republicans and Democrats are maneuvering behind the scenes to deal with a constantly changing situation that one local Democrat compared to a "bowl of spaghetti."

"It's extraordinarily confusing," said the Democrat, who asked not to be identified, "with all kinds of levels and sublevels."

The latest developments in the race include:

*Erie County Democrats are still hoping to find an acceptable candidate to oppose Grisanti in November. If they prove unsuccessful in enticing a "surprise candidate" within the next few days, most sources say the choice boils down to attorneys Michael J. Amodeo and Marc C. Panepinto. Kenmore Mayor Patrick Mang also remains in the race.

*Albany Democrats continue to show interest in former Erie County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned Democrat who has no support on the Erie County Democratic Committee.

*The Conservative Party has named Swanick as its candidate, assuring him of a presence on the November ballot. Grisanti is backed by the Independence Party.

*Grisanti faces a Republican primary challenge in September from attorney Kevin T. Stocker, who is backed by 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino.

As a result, two primary campaigns must now be waged to determine the November participants. While Swanick's dalliance with the Republicans several years ago has blackballed him at county Democratic Headquarters, he has no such problems with Albany Democrats aiming to regain a Democratic majority in the Senate.

Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, chairman of the panel charged with electing more Democrats to the Senate, would not comment on his efforts, other than to label Grisanti's seat the "top target" in the state for his conference.

"It should be a Democratic seat, and we have every confidence we will win in November," he said.

Knowledgeable sources in Buffalo, however, say Gianaris continues to discuss the race with Swanick and that his Senate Democrats see Swanick as their best hope. Polling shows Swanick still retains name recognition and popularity, the sources say.

And absent any other candidate with equal popularity, they say Senate Democrats will "hold their nose" and back Swanick.

"At this point, they would put up Genghis Khan if they thought they could win the seat," said one local Democrat. "It's a purely utilitarian position of what works."

Headquarters Democrats also question what advantage the debt-laden Senate Democrats could provide in any race.

But Swanick remains on the outs with Erie County Democrats, who also are wary of support from G. Steven Pigeon, the former Senate staffer and Erie County Democratic chairman who is usually at odds with current Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan.

Swanick also could benefit from the still-touchy subject of same-sex marriage, which Grisanti voted for last year, costing him the Conservative endorsement. Groups opposed to gay marriage, such as the National Organization for Marriage, already have donated to Swanick and could add more.

On the flip side, Grisanti gained significant contributions from the gay community after his 2011 vote to legalize gay marriage. His last campaign finance report showed $247,000, mostly from a Manhattan fundraiser last fall that included same-sex marriage supporters.

The proceeds are paying for the television ads praising his record and for at least two slick mailings arriving over the past few days in 60th District mailboxes. Some observers say the early effort reflects the worries of a nervous Grisanti campaign, but Chief of Staff Douglas J. Curella said it's more about avoiding the "clutter" sure to follow later in the campaign.

"No one else is on the air right now, so we won't get lost with the others," he said. "We're reaching out, because we don't want the New York City Democrats getting control of the Senate again."

Lenihan is remaining mum on whom the party will endorse, other than acknowledging a decision is near.

But it is known that many Democrats are wary of Panepinto, who comes from the organization that Sam Hoyt nurtured during his 19 years in the Assembly. They are mainly concerned about potential fallout from Panepinto's 2001 guilty plea to a misdemeanor violation of election law for collecting fraudulent voter signatures on designating petitions.

Stocker, meanwhile, continues an intensive door-to-door effort as he tries to appeal to the GOP's conservative base. Several sources say he is encouraged by poll numbers and is expected to have some financial base against Grisanti, especially after gaining Paladino's support.