TAMPA — The Olympics had their preliminary rounds to winnow the chaff from the true medal contenders.
Elections have primaries, with Florida's coming today for a host of federal, state and local office seekers not named Barack Obama or John McCain.
Today is also the first day that several Florida counties, including Hillsborough, will try out yet another new voting system. Voters countywide will cast ballots for the first time with optical scan voting machines that come with a paper trail.
A spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson's office said he, his staff and hundreds of poll workers are ready.
"We're looking forward to a very smooth primary election," said spokeswoman Jennifer Marks.
Preparations included more than 350 hours of training sessions for the staff and more than 100 public demonstrations of the machines, Marks said.
With no statewide contests on the ballot, turnout is expected to be relatively light, which should give the new system a good practice round. Voters nonetheless will have some important choices.
The ballot includes a contest among Democrats for rights to challenge U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Tampa. State Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, is facing a challenge from lawyer Warren Dawson and Property Appraiser Rob Turner has Republican opposition from maintenance technician Robert Townsend.
County Commission: Among the more heated contests is the District 6 at-large County Commission race. Three Democrats are squaring off for their party's nomination in November.
The seat is held by Republican Brian Blair, who has a primary against car sales manager Don Kruse.
The Democrats include strip-club owner and eight-time office seeker Joe Redner and neighborhood activist Denise Layne, who is running for the third time.
Layne said her 12 years working on government issues give her the edge over Redner and newcomer Kevin Beckner, a financial planner.
"Do you want a commissioner who can hit the ground running or one that will have to train for two years?" she asked.
Redner said his opponents have been talking about problems in the county. He said he alone is pitching concrete solutions, such as increasing impact fees on new homes in order to provide property tax relief.
"I'm the only one telling you how I'm going to solve the problems," Redner said.
Both Redner and Layne had spent less than $10,000 apiece in the campaign as of Friday. They were eclipsed by Beckner, who raised more than $110,000 over 19 months of campaigning, and spent most of it on mailers.
"I'm a new candidate with fresh ideas," Beckner said.
Blair is running on a record of seeking tax rate cuts. He has a 10-1 edge in campaign cash over Kruse. Kruse is billing himself as a bridge builder, rather than a bridge burner.
In the other commission primary contest, District 2 incumbent Republican Ken Hagan is facing neighborhood activist Tom Aderhold for rights to represent northern Hillsborough. Because there is a write-in in the general election, only Republicans can cast ballots in the race, which will effectively determine who wins the seat.
School Board: Hillsborough voters also will cast ballots in two School Board races.
The countywide race pits two challengers against 16-year incumbent Carol Kurdell. Opponent Stephen Gorham has racked up endorsements from employee unions. The third challenger, Jason Mims, also is vying in the most competitive race Kurdell has faced in years.
It remains to be seen whether this race is decided in the non-partisan primary. To win outright, a candidate would need to receive a majority of the vote. Otherwise, the two top contenders will advance to the general election in November.
The other School Board race is sure to decide a winner. Susan Valdes is seeking a second term in office against challenger Dave Schmidt. The seat represents the Town 'N Country area and parts of northwest Tampa and Hillsborough County, so not all voters get to cast ballots.
Judges: Five circuit judgeships also will be decided today.
Two incumbents, Martha Cook and Kevin Carey, drew challengers as they sought a second six-year term.
Carey's race proved to be the most heated and expensive of all the judicial campaigns. He and family law attorney Catherine Catlin each accumulated war chests exceeding $100,000 and sent out mailers questioning the other's competency for the bench.
Cook raised nearly three times as much as her challenger, Constance Daniels, who runs her own law firm in Tampa.
Several races feature candidates with significantly different experience levels. Caroline Tesche has practiced law for 20 years compared with opponent Jason Montes' six. Miriam Velez also has been a lawyer for six years, while opponent Samantha Ward has been a lawyer for 18. Lisa Campbell has worked 17 years as a lawyer, compared with opponent Linda Courtney Clark's seven.
Times staff writers Letitia Stein and Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.