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"People don't really know who you are'

The race for county judge, Group 10, pits a veteran public defender against a longtime firefighter turned personal-injury lawyer. With two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Daniel Perry and Frank Gomez are hitting the campaign trail with a vengeance.

They are pumping hands among local civic groups, posting signs along major thoroughfares, and sending campaign messages across the airwaves on local radio broadcasts.

"The day starts at a breakfast meeting around 7:30 and you're usually not home until 11 p.m," said Perry, 35, an assistant public defender who squeaked ahead of Gomez in the September election.

"It's tough," said 49-year-old Gomez, a personal-injury lawyer. "It's just a popularity contest because people don't really know who you are. It's just who meets the most people."

To make matters worse, judicial ethics forbid candidates from discussing issues such as abortion, the death penalty or drugs. Instead, they focus on how their experience qualifies them for the job.

Gomez, a former firefighter and prosecutor, has been in private practice since 1977.

"I've handled almost every type of case available," said Gomez, who also works as a part-time public defender. "That's what you need in this job."

He stresses his background in public service, including his 10 years as a firefighter, and his rise from a modest background in Tampa to being a successful lawyer. That helps him relate well to people, he said.

"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," Gomez said. "I can relate to the average person which is the most frequent visitor to county courts."

Perry, 35, has spent his legal career defending the rights of the poor. He has handled juvenile, misdemeanor and felony cases. As felony division chief for the public defender's office, he supervises a staff of 36 lawyers.

"Working in the public defender's office, we're used to heavy caseloads and prioritizing items," Perry said. "I have the demeanor, compassion, fairness and decisiveness to be a county judge."

Experience counts, but running a successful campaign costs money. So far, Gomez has raised about $44,171 compared with Perry's $31,203. Both received most of their money from lawyers who someday may appear before them in court.

Neither candidate thought it was unethical to accept contributions from lawyers.

"I think I can accept a contribution and handle a case fairly without bias," Gomez said. "The lawyers who contribute to me know they're not to expect anything from that."

"It's like legislators taking money from political action committees," Perry agreed. "There's nothing wrong with that."

The two candidates will spend the next two weeks trying to snare voters' confidence. Perry plans to knock on doors in every precinct around the county. Gomez plans to have advertisements on cable networks such as CNN and ESPN.

"It's a killer," Gomez said. "I can't imagine running for governor or president of the United States. This is bad enough."