LAND O'LAKES — Earlier this year it looked like the showdown for Pasco County Schools superintendent would be open to all voters even though the two marquee aspirants were Republicans.
Both two-term incumbent Heather Fiorentino and former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, as well as their supporters and Republican Party officials, said they would not try to close off the Aug. 14 primary by courting a write-in candidate if no Democrat emerged.
Then along came former county commissioner Ed Collins' write-in bid. With a signature and a pledge, Collins limited primary participation to Republican voters.
To some extent, both of the leading candidates do.
First, they get to spend less money because they need to reach fewer people. Second, they get to tailor their message to a more narrow philosophical bandwidth.
Then it's up to them to seal the deal.
"If they can reach the voters, both can make their case," said Bill Bunting, Pasco's Republican state committeeman. "There's enough information on both sides to make an intelligent decision."
Collins, a longtime ally of Fiorentino backer state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he didn't act on anyone's request, and he didn't seek to give an edge to any candidate. He simply wanted the Republican primary to be decided by Republicans.
"It was a personal decision," he said. "I know both (leading candidates) very well and respect them very much. … I saved them a ton of money, I'm sure. They probably both appreciated what I did."
Both Fiorentino and Browning acknowledged that they do gain time and spending power in a closed primary.
"Instead of looking at D's and R's and O's, you focus on Republican voters," Browning said. "It certainly narrows the focus down."
The county has 117,248 registered Republicans, less than half the total voter tally of 300,022. In 2008, just 18 percent of registered Republicans cast ballots in the August primary. Candidates can target their mailers to those most-active voters.
With Fiorentino trailing Browning three-to-one in campaign contributions after the first quarter, the closed primary gave her a leg up.
"It gives me a smaller population to mail to," she said. "That would be a positive."
Within the Republican base, though, other factors might also come into play.
Browning landed the endorsement of incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, for instance. Though considered anti-education in some circles, Weatherford is popular among county Republicans.
Gov. Rick Scott also warmly greeted Browning, a former member of his administration, at the county's Reagan Day Dinner on June 29, while barely noticing Fiorentino.
"Republicans would identify more with Rep. Weatherford and Gov. Scott than Democrats would," Browning said.
Fiorentino — who touts herself as the only lifelong Republican in the race — countered that she received louder, stronger cheers than did Browning when they were introduced at the Reagan Day event. It's the voters, and not the endorsers, who matter, she contended.
On that, Fasano agreed.
"Most people already know who they are going to vote for, and those who don't know aren't going to be influenced by whether Mike Fasano or Will Weatherford supported them," he said.
It's the candidates who will have to be convincing to win those votes, Fasano said. And most Republicans have different views on issues such as testing, accountability, charter schools, and school choice than do Democrat and independent voters.
Lately, Fiorentino has come out strongly for added school choice options, for instance, while Browning has worked to make himself look more friendly to charter schools than the incumbent.
Overall, Fiorentino is running on her record of academic progress and her experience as an educator. Browning is focusing on his abilities as a leader, saying the district can do better than it has over the past eight years.
Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, said she has heard theories that closing the primary helps both candidates. Fasano said the same.
Fiorentino has close ties to established Republicans in west Pasco, while Browning's deep roots in east Pasco endear him to leaders there. People in political circles are chattering about who might lead in the polls, but none of the politicians who have such polls would share them with the Times.
"I don't know who to believe," said Webb, whose group, which campaigned against Fiorentino in 2008, is not taking a position on the 2012 primary.
Teachers who were agitated to support district chief finance officer Chuck Rushe against Fiorentino in the 2004 closed primary don't sound as intense about this year's race, she added. It could be that many switched parties eight years ago and just never changed their registration, she said.
Like others, Webb said stories about problems within Fiorentino's administration certainly won't help the incumbent. But whether that would play differently in an open rather than a closed primary is hard to say, she said.
Fiorentino contended that the bad publicity was generated by Browning supporters, including members of the School Board who oppose her reelection. She said they're angling for headlines they can put on mailers — which now need to go to fewer voters.
Moon Lake handyman Ken Benson also is in the Republican primary. Democrat Kat Lambert qualified as a write-in candidate four days after Collins filed.
Because of all the politicking, and the high profiles of the main candidates, the end result is likely to be close, Collins predicted.
"I think it's going to be a dogfight," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.