JACKSONVILLE — For two decades, Deborah Gianoulis was a nightly fixture in northeast Florida living rooms as anchor for the region's most popular news station.
Now the Democrat from Ponte Vedra Beach hopes to make news by winning a seat in the Florida Senate, but an imposing obstacle stands in her way: Republican Sen. John Thrasher, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a consummate political insider in Tallahassee.
The Thrasher-Gianoulis race is one of Florida's most closely watched legislative battles, and a Gianoulis win would be a huge psychological victory for Democrats in a challenging political year.
Thrasher, 66, is a former House speaker who earned millions as a well-connected lobbyist after his lawmaking days ended in 2000, but he won a bruising special election for a Senate seat last year after the death of Sen. Jim King, a moderate Republican.
"I feel good about where we are," Thrasher said Tuesday amid a crowd of 250 people at a Junior Achievement Girls event at the University of North Florida featuring Jenna Bush, daughter of former President George W. Bush.
Gianoulis says with her middle-of-the-road approach, she is closer to King's style of politics than Thrasher, and Tallahassee needs fewer hard-line partisans and more moderates.
"People are very, very tired of this hyper-partisanship. They're tired of being divided constantly," Gianoulis said. "I think my message is really resonating."
Gianoulis, 56, is making her first bid for public office. She co-anchored "Eyewitness News" for nearly 25 years on WJXT-Ch. 4, a role that also placed her center stage at countless school career days and charity benefits, producing the kind of familiarity most candidates have to buy.
After leaving TV news, she worked on numerous grass roots education issues, and helped galvanize opposition to a teacher merit pay bill known as Senate Bill 6, sponsored by Thrasher.
That's not all dividing them.
They differ on a state lawsuit seeking to strike down President Barack Obama's health care changes (he supports, she opposes); an Arizona style illegal immigration law (he supports, she opposes); and a 2010 bill in the Legislature that would have required pregnant women to view an ultrasound of the fetus (he voted yes, she opposes).
Gianoulis calls Thrasher a career politician and creature of Tallahassee's special-interest culture, a message that should resonate in a year when voters seem to crave outsiders and fresh faces.
But Thrasher is an icon in Jacksonville's business community and talks of using power to serve his constituents, a point the region's major newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, made in endorsing his re-election.
"It's important to have a little clout. Leadership matters," Thrasher said.
Senate District 8, is anchored by Jacksonville and ranges across five counties, from Fernandina Beach on Florida's northeast tip south to Daytona Beach. The GOP leads Democrats in registration by 45 percent to 32 percent, with the rest unaffiliated.
In the 2008 presidential race, Obama ran far behind Republican John McCain in the district, 59-41 percent.
In the final weeks, with growing numbers of people voting by mail or at early voting sites, the candidates' direct mail pitches have turned increasingly harsh.
Thrasher mailers call Gianoulis a liberal. His evidence is a 2009 letter to the Times-Union by Gianoulis in which she said voter-approved property-tax cut Amendment 1 "stole" money from city governments.
A pro-Gianoulis political group, Less Government Now, blisters Thrasher as untrustworthy over past ethics-law violations for violating lobbying restrictions, for paying a former chief of staff $255,000 for less than a year's work and for helping to broker a secret deal that forced the ouster of Jim Greer, the man Thrasher replaced as state GOP leader.
"He's been in Tallahassee too long. He's cost us too much," the flyer says.
Mike Hightower, a longtime lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield and a Thrasher ally, said Republican activists credit the senator for restoring stability to the party following the Greer fiasco, which led to the ex-chairman's indictment.
"He's a proven leader," Hightower said. "He's the only person who could have stepped in and saved the party."
Gianoulis has the backing of Jacksonville's 1,200-member firefighters union, an army of foot soldiers who plant signs and knock on doors.
Union president Randy Wyse, 44, a lifelong Republican, said Thrasher tried in the Senate to cut public employees' pension benefits, and he admired Gianoulis' efforts to defeat Senate Bill 6, which Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed.
"We saw how hard she was working for teachers," Wyse said. "We think she'd be more for the working people."
Gianoulis says the GOP has been hijacked by right-wing extremists. But she faces the challenge running as a bipartisan Democrat amid partisan fervor, when Republicans seem more motivated and the area has a fervent tea party movement.
Republican voter Pat Meide, 68, voted for Thrasher at a library in Jacksonville this week.
"She's as liberal as they make them," she said of Gianoulis. "We don't like anyone who's going to make us a socialist country."
Acknowledging she faces an uphill battle, Gianoulis says she has succeeded simply by offering voters a clear choice.
"John Thrasher could not go unchallenged," Gianoulis said. "We needed to at least have a conversation — and I feel we're having it."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.