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District 5 candidates hit trail in full sprint

Incumbent Rep. Karen Thurman responded to the president's radio address Saturday, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay will lend a hand to Thurman's challenger, state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, later this month.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 24, 2002

The major candidates for Florida's most competitive congressional seat each got a boost as the campaign's first week rolled to a close.

Incumbent Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, nabbed a coveted spot as her party's choice to respond to the president's weekly radio address at 11:06 a.m. Saturday. State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, the Brooksville Republican seeking to unseat Thurman in District 5, announced that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas would appear at her Sept. 29 fundraiser at Lake Jovita Country Club in Pasco County. She also released results from a party-sponsored poll showing her and Thurman in a statistical dead heat.

Analysts suggested that the attention highlighted the importance of the race.

Thurman's radio appearance, to talk about prescription drugs, is a signal "that she's on the national Democrats' radar screen," said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report. "They're not going to forget her."

Making sure Thurman is re-elected remains a top priority for Democrats in their quest to retake control of the House, added Jonathan Allen, a political writer for Congressional Quarterly, a publication owned by the Times Publishing Co., which also owns the St. Petersburg Times.

"One would imagine she will get all the support she needs," Allen said of Thurman.

The same is true of Brown-Waite, who is bringing in top Republicans to bolster her campaign. The analysts said her poll results, which Allen called an "own poll," should be viewed with skepticism.

But it's not encouraging for the incumbent to see 40 percent, plus or minus 5.8 percent, while her main opponent gets 38 percent -- even in a party-funded survey, Gonzales said.

Brown-Waite said she was thrilled but surprised by the results, coming off the heels of a heated primary.

"Whenever you do a poll, you always kind of shudder a little bit. It's always the unknown. We were delighted with the results," she said. "We have our work cut out for us. That's why sleep is optional."

Thurman was not impressed.

"Everybody that I've ever run against has issued a poll that says they can beat us," she said.

Brown-Waite had a similar reaction to Thurman's radio address.

"Has she been anybody who the news shows have on regularly?" Brown-Waite said. "This is somebody that hasn't had a lot of attention, nor did anybody really care, because she didn't come across as an independent thinker. It's really easy to parrot the party line."

As they campaign across the district -- neither side has begun television advertising -- the candidates have focused primarily on domestic issues rather than foreign relations, which has garnered so much attention elsewhere.

Thurman, along with a bipartisan group of senators and representatives, is leading an effort to restart the House debate on lowering prescription drug costs. She said it was the top complaint from constituents for several years, and the Republican-led House has stalled meaningful reform.

Brown-Waite called Thurman's move a "gimmick," noting that Thurman had voted against a Republican plan to cut prescription costs. Thurman countered that if Brown-Waite really believes that U.S. citizens should pay no more for drugs than Canadians do, she should tell that to her "big folks" when they come to support her campaign.

"It's the Republican Party that has not allowed these amendments to be debated," Thurman said. "If nobody writes the plan, there is no plan, and she does not understand that."

Brown-Waite, meanwhile, has toured the district talking about Social Security. She pledged to fight any move to privatize the program and said Thurman's record on the matter was unclear.

"For too long, the issue of Social Security really hasn't been addressed. Senior issues important to one-third of our constituents haven't been addressed," Brown-Waite said, explaining her focus on the topic.

Thurman acknowledged backing a plan in 2000 to invest some of the federal budget surplus into low-risk, higher yield investments to support Social Security. However, she added, the surplus disappeared under Republican leadership, and she does not back taking money from the Social Security trust fund.

Whether the focus on domestic issues benefits one party remains to be seen, Allen said.

"It's one of the biggest questions of the year, how things play out," he said.

Independent candidate Brian Moore of Spring Hill, who also has been making speeches about health care around the district, said he thought the two parties' focus on the race would benefit him. Constituents are tired of the two-party mind-set, Moore contended, and a tight race for a swing seat could be won with just more than 30 percent of the vote.

"This district could have more leverage with an independent than it could with one party or the other," he said. "I think it's going to get narrower and narrower."

Independent candidate Jack Gargan and write-in candidate David Werder also are in the race for District 5.

Gonzales and Allen said the race was up in the air but that Thurman holds the edge at this time.

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

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