TALLAHASSEE — Three's a crowd in the most wide-open race on the statewide primary ballot: the Republican nomination for attorney general.
With the Aug. 24 vote less than four weeks away, this down-ballot race appears open, with most voters not paying close attention and all three candidates struggling to raise enough money to pay for targeted TV ad campaigns.
• Can Pam Bondi, a telegenic former Hillsborough prosecutor, rocket to statewide prominence even though she has never run for office?
• Can Jeff Kottkamp, the lieutenant governor, overcome his association with Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican who became an independent?
• Can Holly Benson, who also served Crist as a leader of two large but obscure state agencies, surge past her rivals despite her small-town Pensacola origins?
The latest poll, a 600-voter sample by McLaughlin & Associates, showed a three-way tie with two-thirds of likely voters undecided.
"It's a squeaker," said Cindy Graves, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. "They all seem to have different power bases and they all have their strengths."
Benson, Bondi and Kottkamp are all lawyers, as the job requires, but have very different legal backgrounds.
Benson, 39, a former state House member, worked as a municipal bond lawyer. She has never tried a case in court, yet claims to be the only Republican who has supervised large groups of lawyers. Under Crist, she ran the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the state Medicaid program as secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration.
"Trial experience is less important than administrative experience," said Benson, who added that her knowledge of health care is an asset. She would form a "regulatory strike force" to find ways to ease state regulation on businesses.
Her literature notes that she is the only candidate who voted for Gov. Jeb Bush's legislation to reduce frivolous lawsuits.
Bondi, 44, worked for 17 years in a variety of positions as an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough and stresses her crime-fighting experience. She says she would beef up the agency's efforts to combat mortgage fraud and health care fraud.
A former Democrat, she is counting on strong support from the Tampa Bay region, which she says accounts for 29 percent of the statewide primary vote.
Bondi touts her lack of political experience as an asset in a race against two former state legislators and says her only visits to Tallahassee have been to oppose parole for hardened criminals.
"I'm not a career politician," Bondi said. "People realize we need a real practicing lawyer as our attorney general."
Kottkamp, 49, has extensive experience as a civil lawyer for two decades and a state House member from Cape Coral. Crist picked him as his running mate in 2006, but the two men are estranged and haven't spoken in months.
Kottkamp's campaign literature highlights his religious faith and his pro-gun voting record. Nowhere does it mention his ties to Crist. His voting record is generally conservative and he's seen as an ally of the trial bar.
"I think life experience is important," Kottkamp said. "I've had a job from the time I was 12 years old. I dug ditches, unloaded trucks, and paid my way through college."
Kottkamp, who has support from 21 of the state's 28 Republican sheriffs, cites the scourge of prescription drug fraud "pill mills" and says he will form a new public corruption unit if he's elected.
All three candidates promise to continue Attorney General Bill McCollum's lawsuit seeking to block President Barack Obama's health care program. All three are working Republican clubs and business groups, citing their opposition to higher taxes and abortion and support for gun owners' rights, lower taxes and less government regulation.
The Republican nominee will face one of two Democratic state senators in November: Dave Aronberg of Greenacres or Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.
The state's chief legal officer controls a budget of nearly $200 million, runs a firm of nearly 500 lawyers and plays a vital role in areas from consumer protection to Medicaid fraud.
The attorney general also is one of three elected Cabinet members who share policy-making power with the governor on education, environment and investing public money. And the next attorney general will be at the center of protracted legal fights over claims arising from the BP oil disaster.
The job pays $128,972 a year.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.