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'Vote Local' tactic unnerves some Republicans

Unease has struck Republican candidates for local office in Pinellas County who fear that support for Sen. Barack Obama will diminish their chances for victory Tuesday.

Feeding the disquiet is an ambitious county Democratic Party "Vote Local" effort. Using traditional mail and door-to-door campaign tactics, plus targeted Internet ads, the party is banking on Obama fervor to propel its candidates to triumph.

"I really do feel that there could be a coattail effect," said Republican County Commissioner Karen Seel, who faces Democrat Norm Roche in her District 5 race. "I've been very concerned."

Seel said she hopes voters look beyond party labels and judge her on her record and competence.

Pam Dubov, the GOP candidate for property appraiser, echoed that sentiment, but said not all voters in local races will avoid being swept up in the Obama enthusiasm.

Still, "Vote Local" organizers acknowledge they have much to overcome. Forty-six percent of voters in presidential races, they say, skip the local contests on the ballot.

Friday afternoon, as several hundred people waited up to 1 1/2 hours to vote early at the County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater, voters of all stripes were on hand. But it wasn't too tough to find those who planned to vote Democrat all the way.

"I'm a registered Republican since age 18," said Joni Sturm, 47, "and I'm going to vote a straight Democratic ticket."

Sturm, dressed for Halloween as Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, had a long list of reasons, but they amounted to this: She's sick of Republicans and thinks it's time for a change.

Consider what's at stake in the contests for County Commission alone. On Tuesday, Commissioner Ronnie Duncan will attend his last meeting. So will Chairman Bob Stewart, the commission's longest serving member.

When the commission meets Nov. 18, as many as three new commissioners could be on the seven-member board. Democrats could take control of the commission with two victories. And Republican victories in two contests for open seats could infuse the commission with a higher degree of social conservatism.

There are certainly unfazed Republicans. County Commission District 3 contender Nancy Bostock, for instance, said her party's local efforts can easily match the competition's. And county Republican Party chairman Tony DiMatteo said coattails don't historically play a role in local contests, where voters look beyond party.

"People vote for the people they know and think are qualified," he said.

Despite cautious optimism among Democratic leaders, who point to the party's edge in the unprecedented number of early ballots being cast, there's no way to know whether support for Obama will translate into local victories until the votes are tallied Tuesday night.

The uncertainty itself gnaws at some Republicans.

"It's a huge question mark," said County Commission District 1 contender Neil Brickfield. "We've never been here before."

More than a month ago, the county Democratic Party got the "Vote Local" effort under way. Rather than dole out money to individual campaigns, the party produced materials that touted the local Democratic slate as best positioned to address voters' concerns on issues like job creation, the environment and property taxes.

Mailers were sent and Obama workers have handed out "Vote Local" fliers door to door in neighborhoods. Similar "Vote Local" tactics have been adopted in Hills­borough and Pasco counties.

The flashiest element of the campaign is viral advertising through Facebook, and focused Internet promotion. If you're a Pinellas resident checking out the New York Times Web site or the HuffingtonPost, for instance, you may see a "Vote Local" banner ad.

Yvonne Fawcett, 85, of St. Petersburg, however, appeared not to need any convincing after she voted early on Wednesday. She said doesn't normally vote a straight Democratic ticket, but did so because she was "terribly disgusted" with Republican leadership.

"Everybody I have talked to is doing that," Fawcett said. "It's just the feeling today: get them out."

Reach Will Van Sant at vansant@sptimes.com or (813) 445-4166.

On the Web

"Vote Local" is a campaign by area Democrats to capitalize on support for Sen. Barack Obama to get Democrats elected in local races. You can visit www.vote

localnow.com to check it out.

'Vote Local' tactic unnerves some Republicans 11/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:07pm]
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