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Gualtieri wins in a sheriff's race full of unexpected turns

Bob Gualtieri won, and that is the story.

The voters apparently wanted it, and the numbers all but shouted it. This was his election, and now Pinellas is his county.

Just one question remains:

What the heck happened to Everett Rice?

The once and supposedly future sheriff vanished in the most intriguing election of his long and successful career.

When the results began rolling in around dinner time on Tuesday, Rice was trailing Gualtieri by double digits in the Republican primary, and the trend continued relentlessly throughout the rest of the evening.

Now, it wasn't a shock that Gualtieri won. He is the sitting sheriff and had been endorsed by many of the biggest names in the county. He has done a good job paring down the department's payroll, and was the only candidate with an articulate vision for the future.

Still, it wasn't supposed to go down quite like this. Not with Rice conceding early in the evening like so many wishful candidates in elections past.

It was like watching Willie Mays stumble in a Mets uniform. Because you have to understand, Rice doesn't just win elections. He cruises nonchalantly through every poll.

In his four previous campaigns for sheriff, Rice's smallest margin of victory was by 20 percentage points. When he ran for the state House in 2004, no one bothered to even challenge him.

When he began his campaign to regain his desk in the Sheriff's Office last year, Rice's lead was so large it almost seemed comical.

"We were over 40 points down,'' Gualtieri acknowledged during his acceptance speech Tuesday night.

Even as recently as June 28, Rice still had a slight lead (51.5 percent to 48.5) on Gualtieri in a telephone survey done by StPetePolls.org.

So what happened? The perfect political storm.

Gualtieri survived a horrible rash of headlines earlier in the year when it was discovered his narcotics unit was playing fast and loose with the rules. And in a strange way, the negative publicity may have helped him.

It helped boost his visibility, and it allowed him to look decisive and incorruptible when he began tossing bad cops off the payroll.

And as Gualtieri began creeping up the polls, he hammered Rice about double dipping for accepting his pension while seeking another government paycheck. That Rice was willing to donate his pension to charity didn't seem to matter.

"This double dipping thing is killing me,'' Rice told me a few weeks ago. "I've got people coming up to me in restaurants with a scowl on their face. They're mad as hell about it, and the fact I'm giving all this money to charity doesn't mean squat to them.''

In the end, Rice contributed to his own undoing by aligning himself with fringe right-wing groups. It almost seemed as if all the credibility he had built up over the past 20 years was blithely tossed aside for the sake of a few conspiracy-minded voters.

To be fair, Gualtieri still has to face Democrat Scott Swope in November. But right now, that doesn't look like much of a fight. Gualtieri has money, he has momentum, and he carries the Republican banner that has won the past eight sheriff's races in Pinellas.

Most importantly, he has the honor of being the only man to whip Everett Rice in a countywide election.

Gualtieri wins in a sheriff's race full of unexpected turns 08/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 11:34pm]
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