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Five candidates jostle for advantage in the attorney general's race

TALLAHASSEE — It's the resume primary.

Boldly pitching different biographies, five lawyers are fighting for two spots Tuesday in the race to be Florida's attorney general.

Three Republicans and two Democrats have slugged it out for months in a down-ballot race that has struggled to attract attention from voters distracted by incessant ads by candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.

Republicans will choose from among the trio of Holly Benson, 39, of Pensacola, a former state House member who later headed two state agencies under Gov. Charlie Crist; Pam Bondi, 44, of Tampa, a former assistant state attorney in Hillsborough who's making her first try for public office; and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, 49, of Fort Myers, a civil lawyer and former legislator and the only candidate in the race who has run statewide.

Democrats will decide between two state senators: Dave Aronberg, 39, of Greenacres, a former assistant attorney general; and Dan Gelber, 49, of Miami Beach, a former federal prosecutor and staff member on Capitol Hill.

A new Mason-Dixon poll released Friday showed a virtual tie on the Republican side, with Bondi barely leading the pack. Gelber was the clear front-runner on the Democratic ballot. But in each race, more voters are undecided than persuaded.

In addition to serving as the state's chief legal officer, the attorney general is one of three voting members of the Cabinet. The Cabinet, along with the governor, votes on issues ranging from investments of public funds to environmental policy. The job pays $128,972 a year.

The Republican contest offers voters a stark choice:

Bondi is a political newcomer who used to be a Democrat, has Sarah Palin's endorsement and is on a first-name basis with major Fox News personalities ("Sean, Bill, Greta") who are revered by primary voters.

"We need a prosecutor, not a politician," says a woman's voice in Bondi's latest TV ad, paid for by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Kottkamp was Crist's hand-picked choice as running mate in 2006, but the two men haven't spoken since Crist left the GOP in April.

"I don't need on-the-job training. I don't have a learning curve," Kottkamp said.

Benson, a former municipal bond attorney, stresses her oversight of big bureaucracies, including Florida's Medicaid program. The attorney general oversees a Medicaid fraud unit.

Benson said she is surging as more voters tune in to the race. "You can tell that people are doing their homework," she said.

All three Republicans promise to continue a state lawsuit seeking to block President Barack Obama's health care plan in Florida.

In the final days, candidates are scrambling for attention, doing radio interviews, waving signs, phoning voters and visiting local party offices.

Bondi did a three-day bus tour from Destin to West Palm Beach.

On the Democratic side, Aronberg and Gelber are matching each other blow for blow as the two South Florida senators seek to distinguish themselves in a tight race where they agree on most issues.

Both Democrats say they will end the health care lawsuit, play a more active role in defending consumers and de-politicize the office.

The contest turned negative as Aronberg linked Gelber to the BP oil spill because his former law firm, Akerman Senterfitt, represents the company. Gelber resigned days after he learned of the arrangement, and then responded by linking Aronberg's legislative record to an assortment of special interests that gave him money, particularly his votes to allow phone and insurance companies to raise their rates.

Aronberg's closing argument, as he criss-crosses South Florida, taps into the anti-politician voter sentiment and makes the case about who can beat the Republican nominee.

He faults Gelber for mounting a brief campaign for the U.S. Senate before he switched to the attorney general race.

"I've been committing my entire career to public safety and consumer protection," Aronberg said. "This is not a stepping stone for me."

Aronberg represents a sprawling swing district that touches both coasts in South Florida, and he says that makes him more electable.

"It's clear I have the best shot in November," he said. "I'm the only one in this race that's been tested by Republicans."

Gelber is also focusing his final push in Democrat-rich Broward and Miami-Dade counties as he tries to convince voters that the race comes down to experience.

The liberal lawmaker from Miami Beach, the son of a venerable political figure who was Miami Beach mayor and a judge, spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor and worked in private practice before being elected to the Florida House in 2000 and the Senate in 2008.

"I think every time my experience is stacked up against my opponent, or any of the candidates, I will prevail," Gelber said. "What I present to voters is my background as a lawyer, and my record as someone who stands up to the powerful."

Gelber especially promotes his record on consumer issues, a major battleground in the race. Aronberg attacked Gelber for voting against a plan to cap a Citizens' Property Insurance rate increase at 10 percent in a 2009 bill signed by the governor.

Gelber said he didn't want a rate hike at all for customers, given the recession. "I've taken the consumer side of all these insurance issues," Gelber said.

Aronberg said Gelber's vote "shows why he's more about politics than good public policy."

The bickering isn't likely to end before Tuesday, as both men acknowledge a good bit of anxiety in a race where few voters are paying close attention and little reliable polling is available.

"It's a tossup going into election day," Aronberg said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Five candidates jostle for advantage in the attorney general's race 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 10:24pm]
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