ORLANDO — Democrats looking for a front-runner in the first debate of the Florida attorney general's race saw two polished politicians take light digs at each other Sunday while seeking a unified front against the Republican Party.
Two state senators little known outside of South Florida, Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, are competing to be the state's top lawyer and a member of the Florida Cabinet.
Most of the Democratic Party's hopes of curbing GOP control of state government in 2010 center on its leading candidate for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. But Democrats also see an opening in the attorney general's race. Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, the only major Republican contender so far, has a low profile in the state and faced questions about his taxpayer-paid travel and security.
If there was a winner in Sunday's debate it could have been Bob Butterworth, the party stalwart who stepped down as attorney general in 2002 after 16 years. Aronberg repeatedly invoked the name of his former boss, though Butterworth has not taken a side in the race.
Gelber and Aronberg called each other friends but occasionally used their elbows. Gelber, 48, emphasized his experience as a federal prosecutor. Aronberg, 38, is a lawyer in private practice.
"I like Dave, but I do believe experience matters," Gelber said.
Gelber also noted that they parted ways on two key votes in Tallahassee. Aronberg favored legislation, reviled by environmentalists, aimed at spurring residential development. Aronberg also voted last year for a bill that gives tax credits to businesses that fund private school vouchers.
In the testiest moment of the debate, Aronberg said, "I've never had a Democrat distort my record. I've never voted for a voucher." After the debate, he pointed to other antivoucher votes.
Aronberg indirectly clipped Gelber for joining the race after dropping a U.S. Senate bid, saying the attorney general's job was his "life's ambition."
Both Democrats tried to score points with the partisan crowd, pointing to their support for public schools and abortion rights and knocking the current attorney general, Republican Bill McCollum. Gelber reminded activists that as Democratic leader in the House he helped the party win nine seats. Aronberg, who has represented a more competitive, sprawling district since 2002, said he had "made a career of beating Republicans."
Both Aronberg and Gelber advocated campaign finance reform and decried the unlimited donations special interests can make to political organizations that largely operate behind the scenes. But Aronberg, who is associated with a political committee that accepted $50,000 last year from a group tied to indicted eye doctor Alan Mendelsohn, said he doesn't believe in "unilateral disarmament." The committee, Citizens for Political Accountability, shut down earlier this year.
Also Sunday, on the last day of the state party's annual convention, Democrat Kendrick Meek touted the strength of his U.S. Senate campaign and pointed to an internal poll that, he said, shows the Republican front-runner, Gov. Charlie Crist, is vulnerable. According to the Sept. 23-28 poll of 800 likely Florida voters, only 47 percent believe Crist is doing a good or excellent job and 27 percent are certain to vote for him.
"That says not only to my supporters but to donors that Florida is very winnable," said Meek, acknowledging that no independent polls mirror those results so far. "You're going to see the governor's numbers go down, and you're going to see my numbers go up."
The Miami congressman said he had raised almost $800,000 in the past three months, compared with $2.4 million by Crist and almost $1 million by Republican Marco Rubio.