tampabay.com

Candidates score on absent foes

Spirited remarks by Harris, Davis and Gallagher go unchallenged at a heavily attended forum.

By ALEX LEARY
Published August 12, 2006


JACKSONVILLE - Katherine Harris pounded her opponent every chance she could. Jim Davis heaped scorn on his rival and the rest of the "folks in Tallahassee." Tom Gallagher painted his challenger as a flip-flopping chameleon.

So forceful, so convincing were the arguments Friday that their opponents did not utter a peep in response. Then again, it's not easy to fight back when you don't show up.

Bill Nelson, the incumbent senator whom Harris is trying to unseat, did not attend the League of Cities candidates' forum. Rod Smith, who is facing Davis in the Democratic primary for governor, was campaigning in Pensacola. Charlie Crist, who is taking on Gallagher in the Republican gubernatorial primary, said he had other things to do.

But a capacity crowd at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Jacksonville got a spirited, and at times tense, discussion of the issues.

Harris assailed Nelson as more liberal than Hillary Clinton and attacked his voting record. But when moderator Steve Bousquet of the St. Petersburg Times noted that Sen. Mel Martinez, like Harris a Republican, sides with Nelson over a proposed immigration law, Harris dodged. "Mel Martinez isn't up for election this year," she said.

She said the United States should not set a time line for withdrawing from Iraq and said the war-torn country needs economic opportunity so people "think twice before strapping a bomb on their back."

Asked if his repeated attacks on Tallahassee have dug a hole he could not emerge from as governor, Davis replied with a quick "No," adding, "If we unite the state, we unite the Legislature."

The Tampa congressman pledged to find a solution to the state's property insurance woes. He said he would not get rid of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but would use it more as a diagnostic tool.

Davis also responded to criticism of his record of many missed votes in Congress. He said he has tried to juggle his responsibilities in Congress and the campaign. "I have not been there to name post offices," he said.

On voter-approved gambling in Broward County, he said, "This is not the future I want for our state, to look like Biloxi (Mississippi). But the voters spoke."

Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, came across as incredibly confident for a candidate who just days ago was rumored to be dropping out of the race. Not true, he said. "I think people are going to very surprised when the votes are counted."

For much of his political life, Gallagher has been seen as a moderate, but he has taken increasingly conservative stances in the primary campaign. He insisted his views on abortion and school vouchers had changed as he matured, married and had a son.

Gallagher also addressed the possible ethics violations he faces for trading stock of companies with business before the state. "Would I do it again? Sorry I did it," he said. "Wish I hadn't."