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Democrats' House District 44 candidate has yet to campaign

A once-hot race for the state Legislature so far looks like a dud.

Just months ago, Democrats trumpeted the candidacy of Joseph Puglia, who is challenging Republican incumbent Robert Schenck for the seat in House District 44, which covers most of Hernando County and reaches into north central Pasco County.

The state party even ranked the race near the top of its priority list and promised help.

But now — two months before Election Day — the Puglia campaign is still nonexistent.

The candidate is not campaigning, fundraising is dismal and even the campaign signs are still waiting to get picked up.

"You can lead them to water, but you can't make them drink," said Jay Rowden, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Party.

Puglia, a first-time candidate, said personal issues have diverted him from the campaign, which he pledged would begin in earnest soon.

Still, the lackluster start is a particular disappointment to local Democrats and Rowden, who encouraged Puglia to run.

In discussing the race, Rowden even used terms such as "lost cause" and "if he stays in the race." (Puglia said he has never considered dropping out.)

State party leaders privately expressed the same dissatisfaction and acknowledged they are debating whether to put the same energy into the race that they once planned.

"The state party likes to make smart investments," said Kevin King, a Florida Democratic Party official coordinating campaign efforts for the state House. "We are going to keep supporting him if he can get his legs under him and get moving."

State Rep. Franklin Sands, the incoming House Democratic leader who is closely involved in the campaign, said he is just waiting for the candidate to be a candidate.

Puglia initially received interest because of his attractive biography. The 41-year-old Brooksville resident is a retired New York police officer and United Airlines pilot who now runs a small business, Big Redd Carting, a local trash collection service.

Also, the math makes Schenck, 32, vulnerable. He won the seat in 2006 by 1,019 votes, or less than 2 percent.

So far, Schenck has raised $162,000 and spent $45,500, largely for frequent mailings to voters. Puglia brought in $3,500, but already has spent nearly $2,000, campaign finance reports show.

Puglia also burned through two state party-funded consultants. One was Jeff Webb, the former Hernando Times editorial editor who retired in August.

Webb, who is now a self-employed communications consultant, assessed the campaign's chances.

"You can't come in as the underdog in a race like this and not work harder than the incumbent," Webb said.

Puglia said he doesn't feel like he's starting his campaign too late.

"There's been some personal issues I had to address, which were unforeseen," he said Wednesday. "My family takes precedence before anything else.

"It required my attention and needed my focus. My intention is to compete."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Democrats' House District 44 candidate has yet to campaign 09/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 9:10pm]
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