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Offbeat campaigns add flavor to the election stew

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride is stressing unity. The message may have gotten mangled on its way to Pasco County.

A unified party? Terrific. Candidate unity? That's another story.

It's the kind of story prevalent in the uphill battle of Democrat Chuck Kalogianis, who is challenging 10-term congressional incumbent Mike Bilirakis, R-Clearwater. Just look at the host committee for a Bilirakis fundraiser next month in Hudson. It is loaded with Democrats from Pasco, including lobbyist Clyde Hobby.

But even more discouraging for the Kalogianis camp is the dialogue at the first postprimary election debate in Pasco County, held three days ago in Holiday.

"It's great to work on a campaign where 99 percent of the people have nice things to say about Mike Bilirakis," said Republican lawyer Jeff Lucas, standing in for the congressman.

We presumed Lucas was exaggerating. After all, he was standing at the TAT clubhouse in Democratic precinct 42, in a county where Republicans are now the majority party. These people supported Al Gore overwhelmingly two years ago, though they did pick Jeb Bush for governor in 1998. Then again, this is new territory. For the past 10 years, precinct 42 has been represented by U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon.

Turns out Lucas wasn't just working the crowd. The kudos kept coming.

From Kalogianis.

"First, let me begin by saying Mike Bilirakis is a good man and he has served us very well in Congress for 20 years."

"I want to commend Mike Bilirakis for his efforts to try to pass a prescription drug bill for our seniors. It is a good thing."

"Mike Bilirakis has done a good job, but what I offer you is a fresh perspective."

Kalogianis managed to compliment his opponent four times while answering three questions from the audience, including a stacked inquiry from his own campaign. It is a reversal of strategy for Kalogianis, who tried an acerbic, scorched-Earth approach four years ago against Rep. Mike Fasano for a state House seat.

The kinder, gentler, even humorous Kalogianis is indicative of Bilirakis' immense popularity. No sense trying to beat up a well-regarded incumbent. Kalogianis stressed a few philosophical differences, but mostly he tried to win the electorate with charm.

Two other Democrats, Lee Cannon and Amye Cox, also are running as underdog candidates, but neither share the Kalogianis strategy.

Cannon, the ex-sheriff, is running against Fasano for the newly drawn Senate 11 seat. Fasano's eight years in Tallahassee gives him a legislative record on which Cannon is basing his campaign.

He criticized Fasano for a long-running battle with Aloha Utilities that yielded few results; said the Florida Sheriff's Association, not the Legislature, was the impetus for tougher sentencing laws like 10-20-life; and credited the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, not Fasano, for bringing the state veterans nursing home to Land O'Lakes.

Cannon surprisingly characterized himself as a politician and a liberal, two labels usually avoided in local political campaigns. Liberal "means you care about people," Cannon said.

As he has at previous candidate forums, Fasano shrugged. Such is life for a perceived front-runner.

Cox used tactics similar to Cannon's. She is challenging two-term incumbent County Commissioner Pat Mulieri. But to portray Mulieri as inattentive required Cox to be critical of county operations as a whole.

County government is so muddled, Cox maintained, it will require a national task force to straighten out. That's the first point of her three-point program, she said.

That's an incredibly sharp first point. Unfortunately, she never told the audience the other two. Not a good sign for a campaigner if you can't finish your message.

Afterward, Cox identified re-evaluating the county's impact fees, boosting industrial recruitment to expand the tax base and asking voters to consider a one-cent sales tax increase as her other planks.

Cox admitted the risk in campaigning on the sales tax issue. Few have the courage to veer from the no-new-taxes line. But Cox is buoyed by voters across the state approving eight of nine local tax referendums during the Sept. 10 primary.

So, let's recap. Cox advocates a tax increase. Cannon is a self-described liberal politician. Kalogianis uses compliments, not criticisms. Maybe these campaigns aren't so dissimilar after all.

They are unified by unorthodoxy.

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