Hochul is warm and engaging in person. She's funny in a self-effacing way. Everyone she meets calls her Kathy. And, despite being in politics for years, she lacks the patina of artifice that sometimes seems to cling to federal elected officials.
'Preaching to the Choir'
It's impossible for Collins to avoid stepping in the manure splattered on the floor of a barn at a vast dairy farm in Oakfield, about 40 miles northeast of Buffalo. But the businessman, dressed in slacks, a blue campaign fleece and brown moccasins, doesn't seem to mind. He is focused less on what is underfoot and more on peppering one of the farm's workers with questions about the dairy's day-to-day operations and the vacillating supply of and demand for milk.
A few minutes later, in another barn, Collins talks to three generations of the Post family, who own the farm, about his beliefs and those of Hochul.
"My opponent and Barack Obama believe we can tax our way to prosperity. I know that's nonsense: We grow our way to prosperity by celebrating the success of small business," Collins says. "They're two different philosophies."
"You're preaching to the choir here!" says Jeff Post, standing across from his grandfather.
Hochul's big problem in November is that it's a pretty big choir in her district. Under the state's new map, drawn by a federal court, Obama would have won only 42 percent of the vote in the district in 2008.
But the solution to that problem - if there is one - is her. In conversations with more than a dozen voters across the district, all said they had seen her ads and all had a favorable impression, even if they weren't going to vote for a Democrat.
Collins, who has a reputation for directness and occasionally saying impolitic things, is not as charismatic. But his Republican views fit the district.
"Simply," says former Rep. Bill Paxon (R), who represented a previous incarnation of the 27th, "it's a good, solid conservative Republican district."
Still, Hochul "has a great crossover appeal," adds former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R), who also represented the district. "The question will be: Are the Republican numbers insurmountable for her to overcome, or can she package an appeal that earns the votes?"
Reynolds' sense is that if Collins can make the race about national issues, he wins comfortably. But if Hochul shifts it to a personality-driven contest, her chances of coming back to Congress improve.
"Kathy has a very telegenic, easygoing style that helped get her to the offices she's enjoyed in Erie County, including this one. I think people like her," Reynolds says. "Collins has a much more strident personality, and sometimes that comes through and sometimes that doesn't."
Stumping for Votes
On the campaign trail, Collins occasionally appears forced, launching into standard economic Republican talking points without provocation. But he's a highly competent politico and gets a positive reaction from voters.
In a diner in a rural part of the district on Tuesday, a woman approaches Collins' table and asks if he has any yard signs she can take. She mutters complaints about Hochul's staff not being accessible. The Republican gives her his cellphone number.
The importance of retail politicking in this race - in a largely exurban and rural district ?- cannot be overemphasized.