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Congress' spotlight focuses on Suncoast

Karen Thurman and Ginny Brown-Waite carry their parties' hopes into the race for the 5th Congressional District.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


At long last, it's Karen Thurman vs. Ginny Brown-Waite.

The two veteran lawmakers have talked about dueling one another for Florida's 5th Congressional District seat since before the district lines were redrawn. Now that Brown-Waite has dispatched her Republican primary election opponent, the match between the women with similar political biographies but distinct political philosophies is set.

And Washington insiders are as keyed in to the race as the North Suncoast residents who will decide it.

Analysts at Roll Call and the Cook Political Report, two nonpartisan publications that study national elections, include the race on a short list of competitive seats that could alter which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans currently hold a six-member majority.

The Cook report identified just 40 of 435 House seats as up for grabs, and listed incumbent Thurman of Dunnellon among a dozen Democrats "in peril." Observers at Roll Call have been quoted as calling Brown-Waite, of Brooksville and second-in-command in this year's Republican-dominated Florida Senate, "the most formidable candidate Thurman has faced."

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning but nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, agreed the seat is in play. But Ornstein deemed District 5 -- which includes Citrus, Hernando and central and eastern Pasco counties -- more a "target of opportunity" for Republicans than a truly hot seat.

"I think you would call that a target race for Republicans because we have so few genuinely contestable seats, and they've got a lot of money," Ornstein said.

"At this point, though, you'd say Thurman has a significant edge."

National party leaders are responding.

"It is among our top-tier races this cycle," said Lea Anne McBride, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Karen Thurman is on the endangered list of Democratic incumbents."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, already are tentatively scheduled to stump on Brown-Waite's behalf, and President George W. Bush also might make an appearance, the candidate said. Money and campaign support are coming, too, McBride said.

The Democrats stand ready for the onslaught.

"Protecting our incumbents is our top priority, and Thurman is in a strong position to win her re-election bid," said Kim Rubey, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We think that she will be re-elected. We're committed to making that happen."

A bevy of Democratic superstars is available for Thurman's asking, Rubey said. She, too, will have plenty of money at her disposal to help get her message out in a district that is quite different from the one she has represented for the past decade.

Most notably, liberal Gainesville is out and conservative Lake County is in, giving the GOP a 42 percent to 41 percent edge in registered voters across the district, which once tilted heavily Democratic.

That demographic change, plus the national party's desire to keep its control of the House, makes District 5 a swing seat, University of Florida political scientist Shaun Herness said.

Thurman's incumbency has a value that cannot be measured, though, Herness said. And if Bill McBride holds the Democratic nomination for governor, he added, Democrats might turn out in large numbers come November, creating coattails for the party's congressional candidates.

"Both camps have legitimate arguments to be made," he said. "I really think the race could go either way."

Third-party candidate Jack Gargan, who grabbed about 40 percent of the vote against Thurman four years ago, also could prove a decisive factor. Gargan has some lingering name recognition from several past candidacies, a style that even he calls "colorful" and some national support of his own -- namely, he said, Minnesota's Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Two other no-party candidates, Brian Moore and write-in David Werder, are regarded less seriously.

"Don't believe all the crap the Democrats and Republicans put out. I'm in this race. I'm in it big," Gargan said. "I do believe I'm part of the tossup in there."

Rubey of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suggested that Gargan's bid might help Thurman because he appears to skew Republican. Brown-Waite, who won her primary decisively while holding the middle ground, despite pressure to move to the right, rejected that idea.

"Those conservative Democrats and those independents I think are going to back a winner," she said. "I think the average voter understands an independent is going to get zip, nada, nothing in Congress. Like it or not, it's a two-party system. You need an independent member of the majority, and that's what I am."

Thurman, too, asserted her ability to attract those voters.

"Frankly, I'm not afraid of those numbers," she said. "It's not the first time we've been targeted. . . . The way I look at this is, any time you put your name on the ballot with opposition, it's a campaign. Voters have the right to make their choice."

Each candidate said she planned to focus on her successes serving the North Suncoast, and to avoid negative campaigning.

"To spend time looking at somebody else's negatives doesn't do much for anyone," Thurman said.

That does not mean, though, that they will avoid talking about how they differ on issues.

"The contrast and compare will be very vivid for the voters to view and decide," Brown-Waite said.

Through press releases and public comments, the candidates, their parties and their supporters already have begun to make their cases.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare issued a report Thursday, lauding Thurman's dedication to its interests. Also Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a memo praising Brown-Waite's chances to unseat "a vulnerable Dem incumbent."

On only one thing do the sides agree: The battle will be tough, with votes won and lost on the streets of the eight counties that comprise District 5.

"I know that it's going to be a difficult race for Ginny, but we are confident that she will win," said Frank Colletti, Hernando County Republican Party chairman.

Joe Cino, chairman of the Citrus County Democratic Party, had similar feelings about Thurman's chances.

"I think Karen Thurman will win the race again," he said. "Of course, the deck is stacked against her (by redistricting). But she is such an overwhelming person once you meet her. She's not just a politician. She's a people's politician."

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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