Florida Republicans took an 11-8 majority in the state's U.S. House delegation by picking up four seats in lightning fashion, and races for this November are already generating national party attention. The state's delegation has five freshman legislators, one who has been in office half a year, and a seat opened by the gubernatorial bid of sixth-term Rep. Bill Nelson, a Democrat in a Republican-dominated district.
Some districts will change in 1992, when redistricting after the 1990 census will add three, and maybe four, House seats to fast-growing Florida.
Adding to the fun, a national party grudge match is being waged in the sprawling North Florida 2nd District, where second-term Rep. Bill Grant switched to the Republican Party after being re-elected in 1988 by his 83 percent-Democratic constituency.
Lee Atwater, the national Republican chairman, says Grant's re-election "is the No. 1 race in the nation" because the GOP wants to show conservative Democrats they will get the party's strongest support if they switch over.
Conversely, say Democratic leaders, defeating Grant would send a warning to other Democrats about jumping ship.
Bob Boyd, a 26-year-old Tallahassee lawyer, and retired Air Force Col. Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a businessman and former Vietnam prisoner of war, are vying for the Democratic nomination to oppose Grant.
While Grant contends he can bring home more from Washington for his district because it's a Republican administration, Kenneth "Buddy" MacKay, the former congressman heading the Democrats' state campaign effort, says Grant and other Republicans in the House have little ability to initiate and pass legislation.
The 11th District, where Nelson was able to buck a GOP tide, is also drawing national party attention. Republicans in the Space Coast-Orlando district outnumber Democrats, 177,907 to 158,812.
"This clearly is one of the top priorities nationally as far as the opportunity to pick up an open Democratic seat," said Gary Koops, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The seat may look too good _ at least seven Republicans are either running or exploring options.
Former Rep. Lou Frey, who lost three statewide runs for office including a 1986 bid for the gubernatorial nomination, enjoys a name-recognition advantage. But Bill Tolley, a retired Harris Corp. lobbyist and the 1988 nominee against Nelson, is considered likely to run, as are Palm Bay Mayor Frank Filiberto, Orlando city project director Lew Oliver and Orlando lawyer Mel Pearlman, a former Kennedy Space Center employee who has started television ads.
Also in the picture is John Vogt, the former state Senate president from Merritt Island who just switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Some GOP leaders want Vogt to challenge Democratic state Comptroller Gerald Lewis instead. Brevard County Commissioner Roger Dobson, also of Merritt Island, is considering a run for Congress or another office.
Meanwhile, Jim Bacchus, an Orlando lawyer making his first run for office, has captured imaginations and so far is the only Democrat in the race.
"Frankly, a lot of us thought he was taking on a Don Quixote challenge," MacKay said. "But he's been very disciplined, very focused. He is the kind of thoughtful person if he could win with the kind of campaign he's running, that would restore a lot of people's faith in the system."
Bacchus also thinks Nelson, presuming he heads the Democratic ticket in November, will boost his chances.
Bacchus, 40, started campaigning when Nelson began talking of running for governor nearly two years ago, and he has raised $250,000 already. He knows politics and Washington from his years as a top aide to former governor and U.S. trade representative Reubin Askew.
The state's veteran incumbents seem safe. Two first-term legislators, Republican Porter Goss of Sanibel and Democrat Harry Johnston of West Palm Beach, are highly regarded and considered unlikely to attract well-known opponents.
The Democrats suffered two stunning upsets in 1988 _ grass-roots Republican Cliff Stearns beat then-state House Speaker Jon Mills for MacKay's 6th District Central Florida seat, and lawyer Craig James ousted 10-term incumbent William Chappell, who was battling defense scandal links and, secretly, terminal cancer, in the Northeast Florida 4th District.
Democrats are having trouble getting anyone to run against Stearns in District 6, which includes Citrus and Hernando counties and part of Pasco. The district has become increasingly Republican and may be redrawn for 1992. The Democrats are encouraging popular Gainesville Police Chief Wayland Clifton.
In the 4th District, former state Sen. Edgar Dunn apparently won't run as a Democrat, but the party has at the ready former Chappell aide David Davis, businessman and Vietnam veteran Robert Gray, and Ormond Beach businessman Reid Hughes.
In the 18th District, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won the August special election for the seat the late Claude Pepper had held for the Democrats since its inception in 1962. The Cuban-born woman was boosted by heavy Latin support, and redistricting could make her seat even more Latin in 1992.
Gerald Richman, the former Florida Bar president who was the surprise Democratic nominee, says he plans to run again for Congress but may wait until after redistricting.
The only active Democrat is Miami Beach businessman Bernard Anscher.