TAMPA — Mike Prendergast ambles through a pile of weeds, then ducks aside in the nick of time.
"Spiderwebs — that's one of the dangers," he says before knocking on the door of a potential voter Saturday morning.
It's a typical day for Prendergast, who's running for the U.S. House seat now occupied by Kathy Castor. The 54-year-old retired Army colonel has never run for office before, but aside from the spiders, he's having fun.
"Hi! I'm Col. Mike Prendergast!" he chirps to a man outside a South Tampa home. "I spent 31 years on active duty, and I came back home, and didn't like what I saw. … Can I get your vote?"
"Yeah, alright," the man replies.
Prendergast shakes the man's hand and moves on.
His wife, Naomi, follows in Prendergast's white Ford sport utility vehicle packed with campaign signs. In under 30 minutes on Saturday, two people approached the SUV asking for one. And each time, Prendergast stuck out his hand and beamed. "I'm Mike Prendergast!"
This political newcomer, a Republican from Apollo Beach, beat out three other Republicans in the August primary. So far he's raised more than $210,000 from individual contributors, and he said that's just the beginning.
Castor, who easily snagged her seat in the last two elections, said she hasn't gotten comfortable, but she's confident.
So far she's secured more than $636,000 in this race, a little more than she raised in 2008 when she clobbered Republican opponent Eddie Adams. She beat Adams the election before that, too, with 70 percent of the vote.
"I feel good, but you just can't take anything for granted. Every time, you've got to prove yourself," Castor said.
Like Castor, Prendergast grew up in Tampa. He was born on MacDill Air Force Base to a family of military veterans, played baseball at West Tampa's MacFarlane Park and went to high school at Clearwater Central Catholic.
In 1978, while working as a corporate manager of a Clearwater Radio Shack, Prendergast decided to join the Army. He planned on trying it for three years and stayed three decades.
Prendergast was in Afghanistan when he decided to run for office. He said he couldn't stand to sit helplessly as the economy tanked back home.
He wants to make permanent the Bush-era tax cuts, reduce business regulations and cut government spending. His TV ads label Castor as one of Washington's biggest spenders, positioning her photo next to that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"Washington's not the solution," he says solemnly to the camera. "It's the problem."
He calls the $787 billion stimulus bill "waste, fraud and abuse," noting that unemployment has climbed since the bill passed in 2008.
"If you link that back to policies in Washington, D.C., right now, it tells us we're on the wrong track," he said.
Like Castor, Prendergast said he wants U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. His grown son is stationed there now. His daughter's husband is there too, on his seventh tour.
Unlike Castor, Prendergast is against a withdrawal timetable.
He said another facet of his campaign is restoring accountability to District 11, which represents a large part of Tampa, some of south St. Petersburg and part of northern Manatee County.
"The people in Tampa Bay don't have a voice in Washington that answers for her actions," Prendergast said of Castor. "That voice is AWOL from this district."
Prendergast says if he goes to Washington, he'll come back to town at least once a month for town hall-style meetings with constituents.
Castor's camp said its candidate does the same thing, and provided a list of local appearances she made since October 2009 — 18 in all.
Castor's campaign centers around creating jobs in medical and green energy fields and holding BP accountable for the gulf oil spill. She said she wants to fight for consumers and small businesses, preserve social security and leave Afghanistan starting next year.
She calls Prendergast's ideas a "return to the failed Bush policies that led to the economic collapse."
"Now we really can draw the contrast between the candidates," Castor said.
Prendergast said he wants people to do just that. He criticized Castor for failing to agree to a series of public debates before the Nov. 2 election.
Castor's camp said the two already debated, at a Tiger Bay meeting before the primary.
Through her campaign manager, Castor said she plans to attend two more candidate forums in October, but because of her busy schedule could not commit to anything beyond that.