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Congressional race seen as key matchup

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Jim Bacchus, energetic lawyer and candidate for Congress, is stalking a nice neighborhood armed with the biggest gun the Florida Democratic Party has to offer. U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the popular former two-term governor, is in his gabbiest hand-shaking character as he and Bacchus march up to a house. Knock, knock, knock. No one's there.

"You should have some little hand-written notes to leave to let them know you were by," Graham says to the protege.

"We generally try to be low-key with the politics," Bacchus says to the coach.

This probably seems shallow to Graham, who knows as well as anyone the real reason behind Bacchus' "Citizen Saturdays."

For nearly a year, Bacchus and his campaign supporters have cleaned beaches, spruced up parks, planted trees, read to children and walked neighborhoods collecting clothes, food and books for the needy. Laudable pursuits, to be sure. But as Graham recognized,

the ultimate goal is winning the seat in Congress vacated by Democrat Bill Nelson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor.

The 11th Congressional District, which takes in Brevard and parts of Orange, Indian River and Osceola counties, has become one of the top battlegrounds in the nation this year. It is one of only 29 open seats across the nation _ and the only one open among Florida's 19 congressional seats.

Because the 11th District has 22,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, it's a seat Republicans think they should win. And yet, the Democrats have poured money and prestige into the race and gotten solidly behind Bacchus, who has staked a claim as the moderate in the race.

Standing squarely in his way is conservative Republican Bill Tolley. To come out on top among seven Republican hopefuls, Tolley used grass-roots support from the conservative church groups that have been active in this part of the state since televangelist Pat Robertson energized them with his 1988 presidential campaign. In the runoff Tolley defeated John Vogt, a former state Senate president who switched to the Republican Party last year.

Both parties have dispatched luminaries to boost their candidates.

Graham and Reubin Askew, the two-term Democratic governor who preceded him, helped collect books with Bacchus the other day. Tolley benefited from a visit by Vice President Dan Quayle.

Stretching from Disney World to the Space Coast, the 11th District is home to major defense contractors, a galaxy of tourist attractions and plenty of people in both parties who have grown accustomed to voting for Republicans at the top of the ticket. The district gave 70 percent of its vote to Bush in 1988.

The population base of the district is Brevard County, where 55 percent of the district's voters live. While Bacchus lives in suburban Orlando _ and is tagged derisively in the outlying counties as "an Orlando lawyer" _ Tolley lives in the Brevard town of Melbourne.

"There's much too much made of where Jim lives," says his campaign manager, Linda Hennessee. She says that Bacchus began cultivating Brevard County support in November 1987 _ about the same time Nelson was gearing up his race for governor _ and that he has locked up support from traditional business leaders in Brevard County.

"We joke that you can't hold a bridge club meeting without Jim Bacchus showing up," said Patty Grogan, chairwoman of the Brevard County Democratic Party.

A poll a month ago paid for by Bacchus showed him leading 39 percent to 32 percent, but the survey revealed a large undecided vote of 29 percent.

The candidates

Bacchus, 41, is one of those brains-over-brawn characters, a dynamo of intellectual energy who proudly states his height as 5 feet 5{ inches. He graduated with high honors from Vanderbilt University, earned a master's at Yale University and a law degree from Florida State University.

He worked as an aide and adviser under Askew in 1974 and later served as Askew's special assistant when the former governor was chief U.S. trade negotiator.

Tolley, 56, worked for Harris Corp. for 32 years, including the past 10 as a lobbyist in Congress. He has essentially been running for this seat non-stop since 1987. He lost to Nelson in 1988, getting 39 percent of the vote. He then began running against Bacchus, who has also had his eye on the seat since 1987.

Tolley talks mostly about his 10-step plan to reform Congress and avoids elaboration of his more controversial views. He opposes abortion in nearly all cases. He wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, which he says has too much dead wood, and says Congress does not need to strengthen environmental laws.

His reform ideas include cutting congressional staff size in half, capping service in the House at five terms (10 years) and in the Senate at two terms (12 years), ethics reform and limiting campaign expenditures.

Sounding like an incumbent, he avoids engaging his Democratic opponent in direct combat.

"I'm running my campaign on my vision of what America's all about, and Bacchus can run his campaign on whatever he wants to," Tolley said. "I am not running against a person."

When Tolley said during a recent debate that "I'm from Main Street, U.S.A.," Bacchus jumped on the offensive.

"Bill Tolley's parading as a moderate from Main Street today, but the truth is he represents a narrow point of view of a very few people who live in this district," Bacchus said. "They want to impose their way of thinking on all the rest of us."

To reinforce that view, Bacchus began running a TV ad this week asserting Tolley is "on an extremist crusade to eliminate the Department of Education, endanger the environment and ban all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest."

Tolley, with less money than Bacchus, has aired ads promising to cut dead wood in Washington.

Bacchus has won the endorsement of two major newspapers in the region, the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today of Melbourne. But he has yet to show that he can persuade all of those Republican voters to cross over and vote for a Democrat.

Both campaigns say the race is close.

On Tolley's side is the Republican majority in voter registration and the fact that he lives in Brevard. With an edge in money and TV ads, Bacchus portrays the election as "a choice between the mainstream and the extreme."