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For Pinellas County's GOP congressional candidates, a final debate

For three Republican candidates vying to replace a political icon, this is one last weekend for waving signs, knocking on doors and placing last-minute phone calls before the primary election on Tuesday.

Mark Bircher, David Jolly and Kathleen Peters all seek to replace C.W. Bill Young, who was the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House at the time of his death in October. Tuesday's winner will take on Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election.

More than 30,000 people already have voted by mail in Tuesday's primary.

A debate among the three candidates, taped earlier, will be broadcast at 12:30 p.m. today on the WEDU television show Florida This Week.

Here is a look at some of the issues discussed at this final forum:

Sea level rise: The show's managing editor, Rob Lorei, pointed to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projections saying sea levels could rise 1 to 2 feet in Florida by 2050, and 4 to 6 feet by 2100.

None of the candidates said the federal government should lead the way in responding to this threat. Bircher said he would like to see a "peer-reviewed, absolutely scientific study" on the matter, which could be used by individual states to handle it. Jolly said "I don't see a role for the federal government" on the issue. Peters spoke mostly about the need to reform the federal flood insurance program.

Social Security: In response to a question by Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith, all three candidates said it was important to safeguard Social Security and acknowledged long-term financial problems with the system.

Jolly said the government must honor its promise to pay Social Security to current workers who have been told it will be part of their retirement. It must recognize its long-term obligations to pay these costs, treat it as debt and come up with a long-term plan for paying it.

Bircher agreed current responsibilities must be paid, but said there should be a long-term transition in which programs like this are eventually transferred to control of individual states. "I think the people here in the state are much more charitable and much more able to decide what needs to be done than people in a far-away bureaucracy."

"I think we need to protect Social Security," Peters said. She added: "Do I have a strategic, this-is-my-plan? I don't." But she pledged to work toward sound, long-term solutions.

Minimum wage: None of the candidates supported raising it.

Their final pitch: Jolly, 41, was born in Dunedin and has spent most of his professional career in Washington, working alongside Young as his general counsel, and later as a lobbyist, attorney and consultant. He said his background gives him "unique qualifications" to represent Pinellas residents in Washington. "I am proud of my record working alongside my mentor Bill Young for nearly 20 years on behalf of this county and this district."

Peters, 52, a mother of four and grandmother of four, pointed to her work as a city commissioner and mayor of South Pasadena, and as a state representative. "It has been a privilege to live in and serve Pinellas County for the last 28 years either through volunteer work or public service."

Bircher, 60, a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps reserve who also is an international airline pilot and lawyer, said his background makes him best qualified. And also his philosophy. "If you think you can take care of yourself and your family better than the federal government, I think you should vote for me."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @ckruegertimes.

>>Fast facts

Cast your vote

To watch the debate: Tune in to Florida This Week on WEDU at 12:30 p.m. today.

To vote early: You can vote from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at these three Supervisor of Elections locations: Election Service Center, Starkey Lakes Corporate Center, 13001 Starkey Road, Largo; Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater; County Building, 501 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg.

To vote on Tuesday: Polling places are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Who can vote: The primary election is open only to voters who are registered as Republicans in Congressional District 13, which stretches from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with parts of downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out. A general election in the same district, open to all voters, will be March 11.

For Pinellas County's GOP congressional candidates, a final debate 01/11/14 [Last modified: Saturday, January 11, 2014 10:26pm]
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