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Republican C.W. Bill Young may be vulnerable, but no Democrat is opposing him for re-election

ST. PETERSBURG — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's district could tilt more Democratic after redistricting in 2012. His health has declined and he walks with a cane. He has been forced to raise money for re-election earlier than usual this year.

Yet no Democrat is running against the 80-year-old incumbent.

Instead, the name of Young's next opponent is a mystery a year out from the 2012 election.

"My position today is be prepared and get ready," Young said after a recent luncheon at General Dynamics, a military contractor in St. Petersburg that received federal funding thanks to him.

"First of all, we don't know what our districts are going to be,'' he said. "I'm not sure we'll even know that until sometime next spring."

Local Democratic officeholders have downplayed facing Young, R-Indian Shores. However, New York Congressman Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, listed Young among six Florida Republicans targeted by Democrats.

And the party is still recruiting a candidate to run for Young's House District 10 seat.

"Bill could be vulnerable again with redistricting," Israel said. "If a fair process improves Democratic performance in Florida 10 … Bill Young would have to defend his vote to end Medicare in a year that's very challenging for incumbents, particularly incumbents who have been around for a long time."

Young dismissed the Medicare charge as false, noting Democrats under President Obama's health care bill reduced Medicare spending by $500 billion. While Young voted for a resolution that could force seniors to pay more for health care, the measure did not actually end Medicare.

Democratic intrigue in Young's district, which Obama carried in 2008, is as much a ritual as watching for his retirement. But his 21 straight congressional election victories have scared off big challengers.

Israel mentioned County Commissioner Ken Welch as a possible opponent. But Welch has said he won't challenge Young, and brushed off interest again recently. After speaking recently with Israel, Democratic state Rep. Rick Kriseman also said he will focus on seeking re-election.

Locals tend to vote more for the person than the party, Kriseman said. A challenger needs heaps of credibility, money and good poll numbers.

He said he told Israel that Young is formidable for any challenger. "That doesn't mean it's not winnable, but he's formidable," Kriseman said.

Even former Gov. Charlie Crist, who has no party affiliation, has been mentioned, though most Republicans and Democrats dismiss it. Crist didn't return a phone message seeking comment.

As a state senator in 2010, Democrat Charlie Justice heard pronouncements of Young's weaknesses — only to see supposedly Democratic neighborhoods vote for Young over him in a cakewalk.

How much time has Justice spent thinking about another run in 2012? Barely any.

"It has lasted less time than my ad buy on the last campaign," Justice said.

Young has not officially announced he will run again because it's too early, he said. But he started raising money early in 2011, a signal he'll be a candidate — and a sign of a depleted kitty.

Two back surgeries kept him out of the public eye in 2010, forcing him to spend more money on advertising, he said.

As of Sept. 30, Young had $190,000 on hand after raising $85,000 this summer, according to campaign finance reports. Young had $420,000 cash on hand at the same point in his 2010 re-election campaign.

Then there's his much-watched health. Young told recent crowds he lost about 5 inches in height in the surgeries. He requires therapy on his back.

"I'm doing okay. I don't miss any work, I get my job done," said Young, who still has back pain. "I had to do two defense bills this year rather than one because the Democrats wouldn't do it last year."

As Democrats hedge, he has returned this year to a choice role, chairman of the House defense appropriations panel. Local Republicans still embrace him. At the posh social room of the Ovation condo tower Sept. 30, former U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler, a developer, helped stage a fundraiser. Former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker introduced Young. State lawmakers waited to shake his hand.

His appropriations perch has allowed Young to sprinkle federal money around the Tampa Bay area — funding that aids his image of being above partisanship, if also prompting occasional criticism of being too cozy with lobbyists. It also keeps top contributors on his side, and puts his name where any voter — or opponent — must pass: a range of buildings, bridges, a regional reservoir and a marine science complex in St. Petersburg.

Young supporter Peter Betzer, a retired University of South Florida professor, said the congressman's influence has defined the county.

"Pinellas County ought to have a sign: the C.W. Bill Young Complex," Betzer said. "It's not totally facetious."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes

Republican C.W. Bill Young may be vulnerable, but no Democrat is opposing him for re-election 10/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 3, 2011 11:04pm]
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