CLEARWATER — Liar. Panderer. Raft-pusher.
These were a few of the accusations exchanged between the two most prominent and cash-flush candidates in the Pinellas County sheriff's race during a well-attended Tuesday night debate in Clearwater.
It was the last major candidates' forum in the Aug. 14 primary and it showed the effects of a grinding campaign that has been moving at full steam for most of the year. The pretenses of cordiality that previously characterized big campaign events were gone.
The debate featured four candidates, including Palm Harbor Democrat Scott Swope and Largo write-in candidate Greg Pound, who are uncontested and will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. But all eyes were on Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and former Sheriff Everett Rice, as has been the case throughout the campaign.
The two are waging an increasingly bitter battle for the Republican nomination. A GOP candidate has won the sheriff's race in every county election for the past three decades.
The two Republicans have far outpaced their general election opponents in fundraising. Rice leads the pack with $327,000, according to county records. Gualtieri is a distant second, with $205,000. Swope has raised $21,000, and Pound has reported only $8.73 in nonmonetary contributions.
Gualtieri and Rice demonstrated the strategy they have adopted for the final phase of the primary: attack.
Each man questioned his opponent's honesty. Gualtieri said Rice had misled voters with promises in his campaign literature to deport illegal immigrants from the county jail — an action the sheriff has no power to take.
"Why is he pandering, and putting mail pieces out saying, black-and-white, 'I will deport illegal aliens from the jail?' " asked Gualtieri. "He has no authority to put them on a raft in Tampa Bay and push them south."
Rice countered that he intends to put pressure on federal authorities, who handle immigration matters, to be more aggressive in deporting immigrants.
Then he struck back.
"If he's going to talk about what's in my fliers, I'd like to start talking about what's in his fliers," Rice said.
After shuffling through a sheaf of file folders, he brandished a recent mailer in which Gualtieri claimed to come "up through the ranks" at the Sheriff's Office.
Rice said it was a misleading, since Gualtieri had worked as a jail deputy and narcotics detective at the agency, then left to attend law school and later returned as general counsel. Former Sheriff Jim Coats then made Gualtieri chief deputy.
Rice said that the phrase in Gualtieri's mailer implied he had been promoted step-by-step to the top of the Sheriff's Office.
"The fact is, he was never promoted to any rank. None," Rice said. "How can you believe somebody and the other things they say when they say that? He's trying to take credit for coming up through the ranks, which is a lie."
Attended by about 300 people, the debate was hosted by the National Armed Services and Law Enforcement Memorial Museum and took place at the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater campus on Nursery Road. It was moderated by Bay News 9 senior anchor Al Ruechel.
The issues that have so far animated one of the most closely watched local elections — such as a scandal in Gualtieri's narcotics division and Rice's recently formed ties to controversial antigovernment groups — also came up. Ruechel said at the outset that he wanted to give candidates a chance to "clear the air" on public perceptions of these topics.
Instead, the ensuing spectacle looked more like mudslinging.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.