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Democrat in state House District 34 race bows out in an effort to help Argenziano

Lynn Dostal didn't take long to decide that dropping out is, in a way, the best path to victory.

Forty-eight hours after trouncing his opponent in Tuesday's Democratic primary election, Dostal announced he will bow out of the race for the state House District 34 seat. The move sets up a possible head-to-head match-up between the Republican incumbent Jimmie T. Smith of Inverness and former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, who is running as an Independent.

Unseating Smith was always Dostal's goal, and Argenziano, a former Republican with a populist bent and deep roots in Citrus County, has the best chance to pull it off, Dostal said.

"It was painful to sit with my advisers and look at the pros and cons of staying in the race, but the reality is that Nancy Argenziano needs a clear field to beat Mr. Smith, and that is what I promised," Dostal said in a statement released Thursday evening. "We cannot stand by while the (Gov. Rick) Scott administration destroys Florida, and taking one puppet out will help."

The decision was a tough but logical one, said Dostal, a 70-year-old retired human resources executive who now teaches part time at Gulf Coast Academy, a charter school in Spring Hill.

A Democrat on the ballot would siphon votes from Argenziano and benefit Smith as he seeks to keep the seat he won in 2010, Dostal figures. The district remained heavily Republican after the once-a-decade reapportionment process. It now comprises all of Citrus and a portion of Hernando County west of the Suncoast Parkway and north of State Road 50.

Dostal's withdrawal puts the state Democratic Party in a quandary. He dropped out in time to keep his name off the general election ballot, so state party officials must now decide whether they want to pick another candidate to run in his place.

A party spokesman contacted Friday could not immediately comment and never got back to a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Dostal's decision wasn't entirely unexpected. Months before Tuesday's primary, he announced that he would suspend his campaign and support Argenziano after she filed to run.

Then Robert Goocher, a 25-year-old auto mechanic from Homosassa, jumped into the race. Goocher did not appear to actively campaign, refusing to return calls from Democratic party officials and reporters, but he garnered thousands of dollars in support from electioneering groups.

Dostal and Argenziano both publicly stated that Goocher was likely a prop of Republican operatives who wanted to help Smith by ensuring there was a Democrat on the general election ballot who would split the vote with Argenziano. So Dostal announced plans to stay in the race to beat Goocher and then possibly drop out to make way for Argenziano.

Dostal went on to take more than 70 percent of the vote in the primary. Buoyed by those results, he said he considered staying in the race.

Argenziano said she understood his conflicted feelings and praised his decision.

"He worked the campaign and he did well," she said. "When you see your name in the newspaper the first time, you think everyone in the world knows you, and that's not necessarily how it works."

Argenziano was elected to the state House in 1997 and served in the state Senate from 2003 to 2007. She later garnered a statewide profile as the outspoken chairwoman of the state Public Service Commission.

Argenizano filed in 2011 to run for a U.S. House seat, then abandoned the race after a new election law kept her from switching from an Independent to a Democrat. She said her history of pulling votes from both parties and from independents makes her a potent threat to Smith.

"The person who gets the crossover votes is the person who's going to win this race, and I think that's something the Democrats see in me," she said.

Both Dostal and Argenziano have criticized Smith as a party loyalist to a fault, supporting faulty legislation.

Smith defends his record, which includes sponsoring a bill to require people seeking welfare benefits to undergo drug testing, as guided by the wishes of his constituents.

During a break from planting signs in Crystal River on Thursday afternoon, Smith said he's fine with a challenge from Argenziano. Democrats on the trail have expressed support. Earlier in the day, he said, a diehard Democrat offered to display a sign in his business.

"If there's no Democrat, and it's me and her, they say, 'Well, I'm not voting for her,' " Smith said.

Argenziano said she expects "vicious" attacks from Smith's supporters. Smith, in turn, said he has directed his camp to do otherwise.

"We may oppose each other on issues, but I won't be criticizing," he said. "We're going to focus on the good things we've done."

In the meantime, voters may not have seen the last of Dostal, who gave his supporters a directive at the end of the email announcing his decision to step aside.

"Save my buttons," he wrote. "I may need them in 2014."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com (352) 848-1431.

Democrat in state House District 34 race bows out in an effort to help Argenziano 08/17/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 17, 2012 8:36pm]
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