ORLANDO — In the cozy confines of a cable TV studio, Pam Bondi and Dan Gelber exchanged light banter, but when the lights went on the tone changed dramatically.
So it goes for the candidates for Florida attorney general, who disagree on just about everything from President Barack Obama's health care plan to restoring civil rights for felons.
Bondi, 44, a Republican from Tampa, and Gelber, 49, a Miami Beach Democrat, both served as prosecutors, and each has tried to outdo the other in talking tough about chasing down crooks.
She worked for nearly two decades in the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office and he worked for a decade in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.
Beyond that, the two lawyers have little in common, and they likely would bring very different styles and priorities to the state's largest law firm.
In the next four years, the new attorney general will be busy coping with billions of dollars in claims from the Gulf Coast oil spill and a major Medicaid fraud problem. Depending on who wins the governor's race, the new attorney general also could be an early front-runner for governor in 2014.
A third candidate, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Jim Lewis, 53, a former assistant attorney general, is running as an independent candidate on a platform that includes decriminalization of marijuana possession.
Bondi has not run for office before and promises not to seek any higher office. She vows to continue the state's lawsuit seeking to strike down Obama's health care mandate.
"I firmly believe it is unconstitutional," Bondi said. "They can force us to join a gym. … They could force us to eat certain foods."
Gelber calls the lawsuit a politically motivated waste of money. If elected, he says he would sue the Legislature for violating a state constitutional requirement to fund a "high quality" public education system, and would aggressively attack public corruption and "pill mills," clinics that illegally dispense prescription drugs.
"I want the resources of the office to be spent on the pressing security needs of our state, not on some politically motivated lawsuit," Gelber said.
Gelber has attacked Bondi for embracing strong support from Florida's business community and for calling herself "extremely probusiness."
Bondi said she will help create jobs and will look out for consumers, but Gelber has argued in debates and TV ads that Bondi would go soft on unscrupulous businesses.
"I put people on death row, and I will fight to protect the citizens, the consumers and our businesses in this state," Bondi said.
A new Gelber TV ad bluntly accuses Bondi of siding with corporate special interests.
"While she will protect insiders, I'll take them on," a dour-faced Gelber said.
A new pro-Bondi political committee has fired back, with a website accusing Gelber of downplaying his past as a criminal defense lawyer "defending convicted drug dealers, con men and scam artists." The site is www.TheRealDanGelber.com.
Gelber said his work as a defense lawyer was mostly serving on a legal team at two law firms and filling in for an absent colleague in a court hearing.
In her own latest TV ad, Bondi criticizes Gelber — a first-term state senator who spent eight years in the House — as "a longtime politician who stopped listening to us."
On the issue of gay adoptions, Gelber has said he agrees gays should be able to adopt, and he praised a recent Miami court decision striking down Florida's gay adoption ban as unconstitutional.
In her most recent comments on the subject, Bondi has declined to take a position.
"I have never given my personal opinion because this was an appellate issue pending," Bondi said in a TV debate with Gelber on Oct. 16. "The personal opinion of the attorney general should not be in play."
Previously, Bondi has said she supports the ban and would "vigorously defend'' it as attorney general.
Regarding the Cabinet's adoption of streamlined rules in 2007 that has allowed most felons to regain their civil rights faster, Gelber said he would have voted yes and Bondi said she would have voted no.
Gelber is far and away the preferred candidate of newspaper editorial boards: 10 of 12 papers that took sides in the race recommended Gelber, citing the greater breadth of his legal experience.
The down-ballot Cabinet race has struggled to capture voters' attention with all the noise surrounding the races for U.S. Senate and governor.
Gelber hails from the state's most populous county, Miami-Dade, and Bondi is from the politically vital Interstate 4 corridor.
In the latest statewide poll, Bondi leads Gelber by 44 percent to 36 percent with 18 percent undecided. The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll of 577 likely voters was conducted Oct. 15-19 by Ipsos Public Affairs and has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
Gelber handily defeated state Sen. Dave Aronberg to capture the Democratic nomination. Through Oct. 15, he has raised $2.4 million, compared with $1.5 million for Bondi, who beat Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and former state Rep. Holly Benson in the Republican primary. Both candidates are taking matching funds under the state's public campaign financing program.
In the general election cycle, Gelber has outpaced Bondi. He has raised $742,850 since Aug. 24, compared with $526,324 for Bondi.
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.