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Bilirakis hides from spotlight

His Democratic opponent, noting rare "Gus sightings," says that she is convinced the Republican is avoiding her.

Published October 11, 2006

The television studio was all ready to go: The moderator was at the lectern, the timekeeper was in position. The camera operators were ready to roll.

But the candidates' table was set for one.

"I'm sorry I don't have more people with me," Phyllis Busansky, the Democratic candidate for the 9th Congressional District, said with a chuckle.

In recent weeks, Busansky has often remarked that "sightings" of Gus Bilirakis, her Republican opponent, are rare.

A "Gus sighting," Busansky said, is any encounter with Bilirakis in which he says more than three sentences.

Busansky, 69, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, said she is convinced that her opponent is ducking her.

Bilirakis' campaign dismissed the allegation.

Robert Whitney, Bilirakis' campaign manager, said they plan to participate in a televised debate with Busansky at the end of the month.

Bilirakis would rather engage voters through grass roots campaigning, rather than standing at a lectern "spewing Democrat or Republican talking points," Whitney said.

"Busansky should be doing the same thing and not worrying about how many times they are appearing on a stage together," he said.

Busansky is not the only one who has noted Bilirakis' absence on the campaign trail.

Greg Vawter, who arranged Monday's televised debate for the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters, said he offered Bilirakis his choice of time slots on multiple days.

"He wasn't available for the primary either," Vawter said.

Several other candidates skipped the debates, some because they had nothing to gain, others because they were unable to carve out time in their hectic campaign schedules, Vawter said

But Vawter said he contacted Bilirakis several times and approached him in person last month at the league's Pretzels & Politics event, during which two dozen candidates for various offices were each allotted three minutes to address the crowd.

"After a certain point, we have to let it go," he said.

Political analysts say it is a standard campaign technique for candidates ahead in the polls to avoid the risk of a gaffe that comes with any debate.

Liz Hittos, Bilirakis' deputy campaign manager, said his daily schedule is packed.

"How many Hillsborough League of Women Voters events are we supposed to do?" she said.

Hittos said Bilirakis had prior commitments on all three of the dates proposed for another debate, this one hosted by the nonpartisan Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

Bilirakis has been busy hosting his own campaign events. Besides the picnics with first responders and pancakes with Rotary Clubs, he hosted Vice President Dick Cheney at a fundraiser in July, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in August and President Bush in September.

Last week, Busansky and Bilirakis were expected at a candidates' forum with the National Association of Retired Federal Employees in Clearwater.

At every break, someone was dispatched to scan the lobby and the parking lot, but by the end of the hour, there was still no sign of Bilirakis.

"He was supposed to be here. He was going to be my kickoff," said Richard Lee, 75, a Navy retiree who arranged the nonpartisan event with his wife, Betty.

The Lees said they had been in regular contact with Bilirakis' campaign since June and were assured the previous week that Bilirakis or someone from his staff would attend.

"I think he thinks he's his father," Lee said, referring to U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, who has held the 9th Congressional District seat for nearly a quarter century.

For that one, Whitney accepted responsibility. He said he was designated to attend in Bilirakis' place but was unable to at the last minute.

While he regrets the mishap, Whitney made no apologies for a campaign strategy that he said has put Bilirakis ahead in the polls and earned him four terms in the state Legislature.

At the quasidebate in Tampa on Monday, the panelists appeared to commiserate with Busansky's struggle to engage a candidate with an "invisible campaign."

"Thank you for showing up today," said Rosemary Goudreau, editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune. "It is hugely disappointing that your opponent did not show up."

But history suggests such commiseration might not be enough. Bilirakis' staff members could not recall any past elections in which he participated in a debate.

[Last modified October 11, 2006, 01:05:59]

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