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Debating the debate more lively for some


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 1998

Few voters watched Monday night's debate more closely than the students in a University of South Florida politics class.

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Professor Susan MacManus had assigned them to turn in a two-page paper analyzing the performances by incumbent Bob Graham and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Charlie Crist.

Immediately after the debate, several of MacManus' students said Crist was the slicker speaker but Graham the more convincing candidate.

"I came here not knowing much about either guy," said Doug Flaschner, 19, a pre-law student. "I really felt Graham came across as more down to earth, not as negative. Crist sometimes came across as a snotty little kid trying to pick a fight."

"Crist was a stronger speaker, but Graham wasn't as evasive," agreed Payong Vongrasamy, 22, a political science major. "He answered the questions more directly. . . . It made him seem more trustworthy."

Their teacher said the debate probably helped Crist. "People who watched him who had doubts as to the seriousness of his candidacy erased those doubts," MacManus said.

Despite the debate's focus on Medicare and Social Security, the senatorial showdown appeared to raise limited interest among seniors. At a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Holiday, the bartender said most people were likely to be distracted by the group's bingo game. At a Hudson nursing home, pinochle was expected to carry the evening.

At Clearwater Countryside Library, 10 people showed up to watch the debate and discuss it in an AARP forum. They gave Crist points for charm while Graham was favored for his command of the issues.

Crist made one convert at the AARP event: Jim Campoli, 72, of Oldsmar. Cutting foreign aid to fund Medicare seemed like a good idea to Campoli, as did Crist's approach to pruning the federal bureaucracy.

"Mr. Crist impressed me with his new ideas," he said. "I can't see where foreign aid has helped us. It doesn't buy us any friends, and very little of it gets to the common people."

As Crist talked about whether the Senate should vote to remove President Clinton, 65-year-old Nat Lemmerman of Palm Harbor scoffed: "Crist just seems to be more flippant in his answers."

In West Tampa, however, what Crist said about gun laws struck a chord with Isis Segarra and her husband, Israel. They remember what happened in Cuba when Fidel Castro decided who could have guns.

"Nobody could have any guns," said Segarra, who left Cuba in 1960. "I have nightmares about that."

Segarra, 64, said Crist seemed more honest and direct in his call for Clinton to resign. She said she was very disappointed in what she viewed as Graham's waffling on impeachment.

"(Graham) started saying "if' and "when,' " said Segarra, a retiree who aids immigrants learn about citizenship. "Bill Clinton cannot be rehabilitated."

However, Sarah Hita didn't like much of what Crist had to say, particularly on impeachment. To the 60-year-old Carrollwood retiree, Crist seemed to be talking down to the viewers "like a con game."

Hita also disliked Crist's comments on gun laws, which to her sounded like he "had learned a speech of what people wanted to hear and tossed that out."

One of Crist's statements concerning guns particularly angered Perkins Shelton, a former director of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

When Crist said any crime committed with a gun should be classified as a hate crime, "that purposely distorted the meaning of hate crime," Shelton said. Hate crimes are generally considered to be any crime motivated by prejudice or bigotry, as opposed to greed or anger.

Shelton, a longtime Graham supporter, said Graham looked to him like the clear winner on both style and substance. He even liked Graham's response to the impeachment question: "It was a political answer, but it was a good political answer."

Marva Dennard, a member of St. Petersburg's Coalition of African-American Leadership, counts Shelton as her mentor, but she is a Republican and a staunch Crist supporter. She liked Crist's vow to abolish the Internal Revenue Service.

However, Dennard said she was doubtful about the impact the debate might have on the race, because she did not think many voters bothered to watch it. "They're tired of all the negative campaigning," she said.


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