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Incumbents fail to appear at debate

They came ready to debate, but their opponents didn't show. So the three political hopefuls spent Saturday evening addressing a cable television audience, hoping to improve their chances against well-entrenched incumbents.

As challengers, they were free to attack the establishment.

"We've rebuilt Germany. We've rebuilt Japan. We've rebuilt everyone and everything except the United States," said Republican Charles Prout, who is running against Democrat U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons of Tampa.

Prout, Democrat Cheryl Davis Knapp and Democrat Melissa Perry-Itani spoke at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the St. Petersburg Times. Knapp is running against U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. Democrat Perry-Itani is challenging Republican state Sen. Malcolm Beard of Seffner.

Prout suggested establishing a medical service corps, similar to the Peace Corps, as a first step to get the nation's medical bills under control.

Knapp, a nurse, went a step further. "This country needs quality national health care and it needs it now," she said. "We can have a better system than Canada."

Perry-Itani, a Planned Parenthood administrator whose support comes largely from feminist organizations, insisted that if she is elected to the state Senate, she would be responsive to all people in her district.

She and Knapp emphasized their support for abortion rights.

"I will always support a woman's right to make her own decisions about her own body," Perry-Itani said. She then accused Gov. Bob Martinez of calling last year's special session of the Legislature on abortion "because he wanted to make a name for himself."

Actual debating began an hour into the program, when Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, a Democrat, faced her Republican challenger, Al Sinicrope.

But aside from a few early jabs about Platt's tendency to vote against the County Commission majority, the exchange was cordial.

Sinicrope called for lower impact fees to encourage new development, while Platt argued against allowing urban sprawl, which spreads development over a large area and forces the government to spend more money to provide roads and services.

A debate between Republican Chris Hart and Democrat Joe Chillura, also candidates for a County Commission seat, focused on how much time commissioners should devote to their commission jobs, which are supposed to be part time.

Hart pledged to devote about 60 hours a week to the commission. But Chillura said he would be a hands-off commissioner, setting policies and allowing administrators to implement them.

"I believe it's a full-time commitment, but I don't think it's a full-time job," he said.