TALLAHASSEE — In their first joint TV appearance Saturday, all three Republican candidates for attorney general matched wits and contrasted their qualifications to be the state's next chief legal officer.
The three GOP hopefuls hit their strong points, but former Hillsborough prosecutor Pam Bondi seemed more confident than Holly Benson or Jeff Kottkamp. With her terse answers, Bondi excelled in a sound bite-driven format in which candidates were limited to answers of one minute or less.
Bondi also deftly used the chance to question her opponents, calling both "key members of the Crist-Kottkamp administration."
Benson served as a two-time agency head appointee under Gov. Charlie Crist, but when she described her experience, she said: "I worked with Gov. Jeb Bush."
Kottkamp is the lieutenant governor under Crist, an unpopular figure in Republican circles after he bolted from the party three months ago and drifted leftward to appeal to independents and Democrats as a U.S. Senate candidate.
Kottkamp said he and Crist have not spoken since April 29, the day Crist became an independent Senate candidate.
"I've never been a politician," Bondi said, seeking to tap the same anti-incumbent sentiment that Rick Scott has exploited in the governor's race. "I've not spent my career behind a desk in Tallahassee, but on the front lines."
All three candidates said they opposed Crist's proposed referendum to permanently ban oil drilling in Florida's Constitution.
All three also repeatedly used the word "Obamacare" in promising to carry on with Attorney General Bill McCollum's lawsuit seeking to block the new federal health care mandates.
"Draw a line in the sand and say, 'Enough is enough,' " Kottkamp said.
One of the rare areas of disagreement concerned immigration. Benson, a former state House member from Pensacola, emphasized her support for less regulation of business and said she supports deportation of all undocumented immigrants in Florida.
"The illegal ones need to be shipped back," Benson said.
Neither Bondi nor Kottkamp agreed. Both said that was too inflexible and unrealistic in a state where illegal immigrants are viewed as indispensable to two pillars of the Florida economy: tourism and agriculture.
Kottkamp said that if elected, he would sue the federal government to recover the costs of providing health care and prison beds to illegal immigrants.
Bondi may be a first-time candidate, but she showed the dexterity of a career politician. Like her rivals, she finessed her way around a question about whether she supported Senate Bill 6, the teacher merit pay bill Crist vetoed this spring following intense statewide opposition. Bondi cited family members who work in public education and called herself an education advocate.
Kottkamp audibly gulped and caught his breath several times. He also faced questions over his ties to trial lawyers. He worked briefly for a leading personal injury firm, Morgan & Morgan, whose members have donated about $25,000 to his campaign. "I've defended hundreds of people and small businesses against personal injury lawsuits," Kottkamp said.
Late in the debate, Kottkamp and Bondi clashed over the Kottkamp campaign's leaking of an e-mail by Bondi's ex-boyfriend, Tampa lawyer Billy Howard, a member of the Morgan & Morgan firm. In the e-mail, Howard suggested that Bondi would steer legal work to the firm if elected, but both Howard and Bondi now say such a conversation never occurred.
"She dated someone from that firm for five years and lived with him," Kottkamp said of Bondi. "She's the one that started attacking first," over Kottkamp's ties to Morgan & Morgan.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Bondi said. "This is gutter politics at its finest. … I dated someone well before he worked for Morgan & Morgan."