TALLAHASSEE — A stark partisan choice in the race for attorney general awaits voters as Democrat Dan Gelber and Republican Pam Bondi claimed victory in Tuesday's primaries.
Gelber, a Miami Beach state senator, took a sizable lead early in the night against state Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres.
Preliminary results gave Gelber a solid double-digit advantage. Aronberg conceded the race an hour and a half after the polls closed.
"I am not going to be timid, I'm not going to be docile, and I'm not going to be compliant as the attorney general," Gelber said as about 100 supporters cheered at a Miami Beach golf club.
But the three-way Republican contest remained close. The initial results showed that Bondi held a single-digit edge over Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp with former state Rep. Holly Benson in third place.
"When I started this journey nine months ago, I said we can change the face of politics," Bondi told a roomful of supporters. "Tonight, score one for the people."
The hotly contested races held all the intrigue of the major contests and featured political attack groups, a fair share of mud slinging and endorsements from national political figures.
But the candidates were largely overshadowed by the Democratic Senate campaign and the Republican governor's race. A poll conducted a week earlier, found the majority of voters undecided — more than 40 percent in the Democratic race.
The huge pool of uncommitted voters built drama into the final day, leaving candidates anxiously scrambling to win last-minute voters as they visited polling sites across the state.
A number of voters at precincts in Tampa couldn't even recall which candidate they picked just moments after casting a ballot.
Erica House, a 26-year-old Tampa nursing student, voted for Aronberg in the Democratic primary. Why?
"Honestly, I don't know," she said. "That's the only one that stood out. You stop listening when you see them going back and forth with all the negative ads."
Gelber and Aronberg ran a close race with relatively few policy differences between them. But they spent thousands on television advertisements and mailers to brand each other as "a typical politician" who took money from special interests and voted against consumers.
The differences came in style.
Aronberg's legislative record is more moderate compared to Gelber, a firebrand former House Democratic leader.
Gelber, 49, doesn't hide his politics. Upon election, he promises to sue the Legislature for underfunding education and drop the lawsuit against the federal government concerning the federal health care law. He believes that he won the primary because the people of Florida trust his 10 years of experience as a federal prosecutor.
"Floridians understandably feel anxious about their future, and they're looking for a champion," he said in his victory speech.
Aronberg vowed to support Gelber in the general election. "I think Pam Bondi is a formidable candidate, and Dan will need the Democratic Party united behind him to win this race," he said.
On the Republican side, Bondi, 44, carried momentum into the final days as she touted the endorsement of Sarah Palin and held a slight lead in the polls.
The first-time candidate, who spent 18 years in the Hillsborough County Prosecutor's Office, ran as the anti-politician and stressed her crime-fighting credentials. She pledged to continue the state's health care lawsuit.
But at times she stumbled to explain her previous life as a Democrat and her positions on controversial issues.
At a May event, Bondi deflected a question on the issue of gay adoption by bringing up a couple who adopted a child and "are in a loving, committed same-sex relationship." Then she had to clarify earlier remarks by saying she will continue the state's effort to uphold Florida's unique gay adoption ban.
Throughout the campaign, she tarnished her two opponents by linking them to Gov. Charlie Crist.
Kottkamp, 49, served with Crist, but distanced himself after the governor bolted from the Republican Party. Under Crist, Benson, 39, ran the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the state Medicaid program as secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration.
The candidates all drew big support from their respective turfs: Tampa for Bondi, Fort Myers for Kottkamp and Pensacola for Benson.
Kottkamp conceded and pledged to help Bondi.
"Too much is at stake this election cycle to sit on the sidelines and do nothing," he said.
Bondi and Gelber wasted no time setting the stage. Bondi said Gelber "is an Eliot Spitzer-type of Floridian, who is painting a bull's-eye on every business, every paycheck and every job."
Gelber retorted with his own comparison: "Florida doesn't need a Sarah Palin with a law degree for attorney general."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.