BOSTON — Donna Brazile was late.
The celebrity Democratic operative/author/Roll Call columnist was due to address the New York delegation at its breakfast Tuesday morning, but she became hopelessly detained.
For Samara Barend, opportunity knocked — as it has so many times in her brief political career.
Judith Hope, the former state Democratic chairwoman who was playing emcee, invited Barend, the 26-year-old Democratic candidate in the race to replace Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), to say a few words.
“I guess I’m the entertainment,” Barend told the hundreds of delegates, elected officials and dignitaries who were munching bagels, bacon and eggs. “So get used to it.”
It was prime exposure for Barend, who spent the week in Boston making the rounds in an attempt to boost her profile among Democratic opinionmakers — and meet scores of potential donors and foot soldiers.
“I’m sensing that we really have a chance,” Barend tells anyone who will listen.
Since Houghton announced his retirement in April, Barend, a former state party operative and community activist, has moved from the longest of long shots and become one of state and national Democrats’ favorite upset possibilities. Her aggressive fundraising — and apparent good luck — has fueled Democratic optimism even though Republicans hold a 45 percent to 29 percent edge in voter enrollment in the Southern Tier district.
“It presents an interesting opportunity,” said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Barend’s appearance on the national radar screen has come suddenly. On Tuesday, she was called out by no less an eminence than Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and erstwhile presidential frontrunner who also made a speaking appearance at the New York breakfast.
“That’s going to be a pick-up to make Nancy Pelosi the next Speaker of the House of Representatives,” Dean said.
Hope called Barend “a remarkable young woman. I really feel like we raised her in the New York Democratic Party.”
Barend’s most recent fundraising report showed party leaders that she had learned a thing or two from one of the prominent New York Democrats she has worked for, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Barend finished June with $136,000 in the bank after raising $120,000 in the previous three months and a total of $171,000 since the campaign began.
That was a higher cash-on-hand total than either of the Republicans competing for the seat, state Sen. Randy Kuhl and Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini, who have been battling in a contested primary.
And Barend appears to have caught another break with the New York Conservative Party’s decision to offer Assini its ballot line in November regardless of the outcome of the Sept. 14 GOP primary. Although Kuhl is the frontrunner in the Republican race, Assini has vowed to campaign through November, meaning he and Kuhl could split the conservative vote should Kuhl win the GOP nod.
What’s more, despite the district’s Republican history, many voters are political moderates. The Southern Tier has been hard-hit economically, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is expected to finish just a few points behind President Bush in the presidential election — a strong showing in a district that gave Bush a 10-point victory in 2000.
“The Republican running will clearly have to run in the Amo Houghton mold,” Speed said, referring to the departing nine-term incumbent, one of the few moderate Republicans left in the House.
In her remarks to the delegation, Barend talked about her race, but she reminded the crowd that the 29th district is just one of Democrats’ pick-up opportunities in the Empire State. The other is the Buffalo-area 27th district, where another Republican moderate, Rep. Jack Quinn, is retiring.
“We have a historic opportunity right now in NewYork,” she said. “For the first time in decades, we have two open seats, and we’re going to take back both of them.”
One senior state Democratic official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that state and national party leaders believe that Quinn’s seat is far more winnable than Houghton’s. (Assemblyman Brian Higgins, one of the top Democratic contenders in the 27th, was also making the scene at the convention this week).
But the Democratic official said no one should count Barend out.
“She’s kind of a hometown hero to Upstate Democrats,” he said.