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As Chris Collins and Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul wrapped up their third and last debate Wednesday at YNN Cable studios, you might say both were launching a crucial new phase of their campaigns for the 27th Congressional District.

Hours of debate preparation for Hochul, D-Hamburg, and Collins, a Republican, now lay behind them. Ditto for months of strategy sessions and fundraising.

Now, as the campaign enters its final days, the stars of one of the nation’s most contested races turn their attention to Nov. 6. Their multimillion-dollar “air war” continues on Buffalo and Rochester television, but Collins and Hochul are now focusing on their “ground game.” That means a frantic schedule of personal appearances throughout the eight-county district to energize their respective bases.

“Chris, from this point forward, will make the case through retail politics,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “He will go to his base, identify his voters and then turn them out. It will be ‘leave no Republican behind’ at the polls this year.”

Beyond the base, both candidates hope to reel in independents and the small sliver of undecideds targeted by the seemingly unending TV ads. While a Siena College poll early this month measured the race as dead even, it also gave Hochul an eight-point lead among independents.

“Independents are crucial to Hochul,” said Siena Research Institute pollster Steven A. Greenberg. “I think it would be very difficult for Hochul to win this race if she doesn’t win independents by a significant margin.”

As a result, Hochul and Collins will be “everywhere” over the next week before kicking off their equally important get-out-the-vote operation. Hochul spokesman Francis Thomas said the Democratic incumbent was talking to voters even while preparing for the debates, and will keep at it.

“She continues to spend time visiting seniors, diners, and regular Western New York middle-class voters,” he said. “Connecting on a personal level is one of her strengths, so she does that every day.”

Much of that effort will focus on the district’s eastern end, where Hochul – and Collins, for that matter – are less well known. That means personal appearances in places like Victor, Canandaigua and throughout Ontario County.

“They clearly don’t know Kathy as well, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be there for her on Election Day,” Thomas said.

Thomas acknowledges the race is “very close,” so phone bank volunteers will now aim to turn out voters. Hundreds of people are involved, he said, adding that organized labor could also get more active in coming days.

None of this means Hochul is ignoring her base. Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said party volunteers expect to knock on 40,000 doors in Erie County alone over the next few days to tout a Democratic ticket that features Hochul.

“We’re doing an all-out effort right now at front doors,” he said. “We want to knock on doors, put something in their hands and talk about Democratic candidates.”

Collins is concentrating on the eastern end of the district, too, on the premise that he already has nearly 100 percent name recognition after four years as Erie County executive.

The Republican enrollment advantage in the redrawn 27th District dominates his strategy as he introduces himself outside his home base. That means dropping in on GOP picnics or last week’s Republican women’s dinner in Niagara County.

“He’s been very attentive to the needs and the concerns of the taxpayers of Niagara County,” said Niagara County Republican Chairman Michael J. Norris.

Lowell Conrad, chairman of the Livingston County Republican Committee, said Collins has made several visits.

“I would think he’s given us enough attention when you’ve got eight counties involved,” Conrad said. “I think he’s pretty well known now.”

The campaign views the rural counties, which lean Republican, as key to a Collins victory.

“Those are Republicans who don’t like [President] Barack Obama,” said campaign adviser Christopher M. Grant.

Meanwhile, Collins continues his ad barrage in Rochester, and the campaign conducts weekly conference calls with key Republicans from around the district to determine events that Collins should attend.

Collins’ face-to-face campaign efforts have focused on reaching the Republican base and small businesses, Grant said, which provide a comfortable setting for the businessman-turned-politician. His posts on Facebook and Twitter tout his visits to small businesses, usually extolling the virtues of such enterprises and criticizing Democratic policies that affect them.

As for Erie County, both candidates are household names. Hochul was also a Hamburg council member and county clerk. In announcing his bid for Congress, Collins reflected on his loss for a second bid as county executive to Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz, and said he won the towns that are now included in the 27th District.

But Collins has less support in Erie County than Hochul, according to the Siena poll – 51 percent to 45 percent.

Republicans have an edge of fewer than 1,000 voters over Democrats in the Erie County portion of the district, while districtwide, the GOP holds an edge of 35,360 voters.

Though Collins has focused on solidifying support among Republicans, they comprise 40 percent of voters, while 19 percent are unaffiliated. But the apparent loss of support among independents shouldn’t be too worrying to Collins, Greenberg said.

“Collins has more room to play because the district has a Republican enrollment edge,” he said.

Hochul campaigned with former President Bill Clinton in Rochester earlier this month. Collins held a rally for supporters with House Speaker John Boehner.

Collins’ team has seen an increase in small campaign donations and lawn sign requests since Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has surged in the polls, Grant said.

Another Siena/Buffalo News/WGRZ poll in the 27th District will be released next Sunday.

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