There is a spark of excitement when Congressman Jack Kemp walks into the auditorium in the Hamburg elementary school. The bright lights of a video camera come on. Heads turn as the peppery-haired Republican makes his way slowly down the aisle, stopping to give personal greetings to many in the audience. Despite the fact that Congressman Kemp has not lived here for years, Hamburg is his official residence.
At the table in front, Buffalo City Councillor James P. Keane sits quietly along with other office seekers at this League of Women Voters forum. The Democratic challenger to a big-name Republican who will likely run for President in 1988, Mr. Keane looks very much the local politician to the national contender.
But local politics is what Kemp's most formidable challenger in 16 years revels in. And because Keane has worked hard to portray Kemp as being out of touch with the district, the eight-term congressman has had to defend his seat at a time when he could be campaigning with other politicians around the country, gathering support for a 1988 national race.
``I'm the western New Yorker,'' says Keane who comes from a large and active Buffalo family. ``Jack Kemp votes like he's from the Sunbelt.''
Keane hits on what he claims is Kemp's wrong votes on issues like the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup bill, deductibility of state taxes, and fair-trade issues.
Those are vital issues in this still-depressed part of the state, which is identified more often with the so-called ``rust belt'' than with the thriving eastern part of New York State.
Keane does not mention that Kemp's 31st Congressional District does not include blue-collar Buffalo. Much of it is suburban and many of its residents are Republicans.
But Keane repeats his charges at the Hamburg forum, and Kemp is clearly annoyed. He lists the projects he has been involved in: mass transit in Buffalo, the cleaning up of Lake Erie, and obtaining federal funds for an earthquake research center at the local state university.
Earlier that afternoon Kemp had stood in a misty rain at the groundbreaking for a senior-citizens housing project that received federal funds.
``This is not politicking, this is statesmanship,'' Kemp said before the ceremony. In Hamburg that evening, he touts such projects as bipartisan efforts but emphasizes that they would not exist if ``it hadn't been for Jack Kemp.''
Democrats both locally and nationally are delighted.
``For the first time in years, the Democrats are fielding a very strong candidate and highlighting [Kemp's] record where he is most vulnerable,'' says Joseph Crangle, the Democratic county leader in Buffalo.
Keane insists that he is in the race to win. But political observers say that the real intent of the Keane candidacy, which has received $50,000 from the National Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is to keep Kemp closer to his district this election and to put a thorn in the side of any presidential aspirations.
This campaign has given Kemp a lot more negative publicity than he wants, says Gerald M. Goldhaber, chairman of communications at the State University of Buffalo. His research firm conducted a poll this past weekend that shows Kemp leading 64 percent to 29.8 percent with 6.2 percent undecided.
Even if Kemp wins by a landslide, this is ``a battle of media perception,'' Dr. Goldhaber says. Editors around the country will say that a local politician has taken on Goliath and clipped him.
Most observers -- even Keane's supporters -- admit this campaign will position Keane for future races, either for county executive or another congressional race in 1988.
The audience in Hamburg listens politely to both candididates. They ask thoughtful questions of each candidate -- about job quotas, limits on campaign spending, CIA involvement in Central America, and the national debt. Keane clearly elicits enthusiastic response in this forum.
Nelson and Betty Sheehan of Hamburg are Keane supporters, and Mrs. Sheehan wears a button saying ``Hit the road, Jack.'' For Mr. Sheehan, a former steel worker, the issue is one of ``taking care of your own first.''
Karl Henry, a county legislator, says Kemp ``was here delivering the check'' when it was needed. He does not care where Kemp lives as long as the community has an ear in Washington.