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Rival ambushes Bilirakis event

The Democrat awaits his campaign appearance yards away from her headquarters.

Published October 26, 2006


Congressional candidate Gus Bilirakis was just a few minutes away from a campaign appearance at an Italian bistro in Carrollwood Tuesday evening when his cell phone rang.

The caller had an urgent warning: Bilirakis was driving into an ambush.

Of all the restaurants in the 800 square miles of congressional District 9, Michael's Grill is only about 50 feet from the campaign headquarters of Bilirakis' opponent: Democrat Phyllis Busansky.

Bilirakis drove on. And when he wheeled into the Town Center Shopping Center at 5:30 p.m., Busansky was waiting, with a throng of sign-waving supporters in campaign T-shirts.

The Democratic candidate's backers had filled up the parking spots closest to the restaurant and plastered a line of cars with signs screaming "phyllis!"

The Republican candidate found a space in the lot, but perhaps not as close to the restaurant as he liked.

He walked through the jeering crowd offering just a quick hello.

Inside were two dozen people, including his father, District 9 incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, who is retiring after 24 years, and Gus's mother, Evelyn Bilirakis. She called Busansky's stunt "pretty low-class and desperate."

Once Bilirakis had safely entered Michael's, Busansky crowed to reporters. "I was hoping he'd come here and stand up with me," she said.

"Gus has hidden always from these kinds of encounters," said Busansky, who added she was planning to ask him about congressional spending priorities.

Bilirakis, inside and drinking a Coke, told a reporter: "I'm fine. ... This is a meet-and-greet. It's been wonderful. I'm not hiding"

The confrontation was one incident in what's been a week of stepped-up tactics by Busansky.

Her campaign videotaped the ambush and placed on a 66-second spot titled "Why won't Gus talk?" By 7:30 p.m. Wednesday it had been viewed 254 times.

Bilirakis has countered with a saucy ad on TV and on youtube claiming Busansky is a limousine liberal.

Busansky's bid to take the seat away from the Bilirakis family has been emboldened in recent weeks by discontent whipped up by the rash of Republican scandals nationally, and editorial endorsements from the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune.

Lobbyist Bob Levy told the Times last week that some Republicans are buzzing about internal polling showing Busansky within 10 percentage points of Bilirakis.

Campaign managers for both candidates declined Wednesday to comment on any polls. Rob Whitney, Bilirakis' campaign manager, conceded that Busansky has narrowed the gap since August, when a poll commissioned by Bilirakis showed he had a 28-point lead.

National political analysts don't put District 9 in the top tier of competitive House races nationwide.

Federal campaign finance records show no recent influx of cash in the race from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, even though U.S. Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, the chairman, participated in a local Busansky fundraiser last week.

On Saturday morning, both candidates are scheduled to tape a televised debate at the WEDU studios in Tampa.

"I'm hoping he will come," Busansky said. "In one year, he has agreed to one debate one week before the election."

[Last modified October 25, 2006, 22:59:44]

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