WINTER PARK — Two years ago, veteran U.S. Rep John Mica helped Sandy Adams get elected to Congress.
Now he's locked in the fight for his political life against her.
The incumbent vs. incumbent showdown in Florida's 7th Congressional District — a by-product of the once-in-a-decade reapportionment process — represents one of the few pieces of drama ahead of Florida's Aug. 14 congressional primaries.
Other incumbents face primaries, and open seats in northeast and southwest Florida have drawn large fields, but the race for the Republican nomination between Mica and Adams has evolved into another proxy war between mainstream Republicans, who have aligned with Mica, and Sarah Palin and tea party activists, who support Adams.
Next Tuesday's winner is expected to glide to re-election in November. The loser will be among 11 House members forced out of office this year in an incumbent vs. incumbent primary.
Adams tells voters they should send Mica packing since he allowed the federal government's issues to fester on his watch.
"Where was he?" she said. "Because this was happening when he was there."
Mica counters that he got results in Washington while she just complained.
"There's people that go up there and talk about it, and there's people that do it," he said.
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The Central Florida race, which has become one of the most watched in the nation, has spun into a cycle of attacks, counterattacks and finger-pointing.
Adams has tried to keep the campaign in Central Florida focused on Mica and his nearly 20-year career in Washington. She talks about his votes to increase the debt ceiling and support of the controversial SunRail project, which will provide commuter rail service around Orlando.
Her campaign fliers include pictures of Mica standing with President Barack Obama at a bill signing. In a TV ad, she includes a snippet of video that shows Mica appearing to tell Obama "I'm your best cheerleader" after a State of the Union address. (The Mica campaign says that the use of the video violates House rules.)
Mica, who has the fundraising advantage, has been on television and radio more frequently. He uses most of that time to play up his conservative credentials, saying he worked to limit earmarks and reduce the size of government. He also talks about his clout in Washington, where he chairs the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
But he has gone on the attack, too. His latest spot says that Adams tells voters one thing during the campaign and does another in office. "Two Sandys," it's called.
Mica, who is seeking an 11th term in Congress, said this is the toughest primary he has ever experienced. But the campaign is also creating a clear choice for voters, he told a group gathered at a Winter Park home for a fundraiser on Saturday.
It just remains to be seen what type of leader voters chose, Mica said, and "we'll have to understand where we are as a country and as a community."
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The newly drawn District 7 includes most of Seminole County and parts of southern Volusia and northern Orange counties. It includes portions of both Adams' and Mica's old districts and is considered solidly Republican.
In 2008, voters in the district narrowly supported John McCain over Barack Obama for president. In 2010, the district backed Rick Scott for governor over Alex Sink by 5 percentage points.
Mica, 69, is a former real estate developer and businessman. Adams, 55, lives northeast of Orlando. She served in the Air Force and later as an Orange County sheriff's deputy before she resigned to join the state Legislature in 2003.
Most observers expected Mica to relocate to northeast Florida to run for a seat that includes two-thirds of the people he currently represents.
But he decided to stay in his Winter Park home, realizing that he has represented most of the people in the District 7 at some point in his political career. Adams had already announced her candidacy by then.
Mica has drawn from support across the district. He beat Adams in roughly a dozen straw polls and is endorsed by several current and former mayors from Winter Park, Oviedo and Sanford.
He also has a nearly 2-to-1 money advantage, raising $1.6 million compared to Adams' $941,902 through July. Mica has more than double the amount of cash on hand, $960,395 compared to her $452,735.
However, Adams has the support of the tea party and is using her status as an outsider to appeal to disenchanted voters.
She was among 87 freshman elected to the U.S. House in 2010 after an anti-incumbent sentiment swept the nation. She vowed to take a hard-line approach in Washington by opposing stimulus spending and debt ceiling increases and advocating for a balanced budget and a repeal of health care reform.
"It was a very clear, loud message, and I've stayed true to the message they sent me with," Adams said.
Her freshman term was mostly low-key, though Adams drew national attention for sponsoring legislation to limit the influence of foreign law in U.S. courtrooms despite scant evidence that it ever happens. Earlier this year, she accused Obama of attempting to grab unconstitutional powers.
She has the support of some high-profile conservatives, including Palin, U.S. Rep. Allen West and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Mica's highest-profile national advocate is former Arkansas governor turned political commentator Mike Huckabee.
During the Winter Park fundraiser Saturday, Mica joked that he tried to stay out of the camera shot during a transportation bill signing event with Obama. Friends urged him not to attend, predicting that those pictures would be used against him during the campaign.
The bill represented his hard work, Mica said, so he decided to stand with the president.
"The bill had my name on it, and I authored it, and I represented the people of this district and the United States, and I was proud of what I did," he said. "You do have to work with people to get things done."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]