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Race draws attention of state GOP

The highest-ranking Republican state representative came to Citrus County on Thursday full of praise and promises for Paul Hawkes, the party's challenger for the District 26 seat. John Renke, the House minority leader-elect, said the seat held by Inverness Democrat Dick Locke is one of about a dozen targeted by state GOP leaders.

Of those high-priority House seats, "this is one of the highest," Renke said. The voting patterns of the district, which supported George Bush in 1988, indicate that a strong Republican could win even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, he said.

If Hawkes defeats Locke, the Crystal River lawyer would be appointed to committees overseeing criminal justice, ethics reform and reforming the boundaries of legislative districts, Renke said.

Democratic House Speaker T.

K. Wetherell has made similar promises to Locke, who is seeking his fifth term as representative for the district, which includes most of Citrus County and part of Marion County.

Locke, a popular former sheriff's deputy, first was elected in 1982.

Both parties hope to win the seat to gain influence in redrawing district boundaries, which is considered crucial to deciding which party will control the Legislature in the 1990s.

During a news conference at Hawkes' office Thursday morning, Renke also said state GOP officials will deliver more than promises to Hawkes' campaign, noting that the party already has contributed about $27,000.

Most of that was spent on color brochures mailed recently to the county's registered voters.

Hawkes noted that, in his first campaign in 1988, he received no help from state Republicans. "Two years ago, they wouldn't return my calls," he said.

Renke said Hawkes' performance as a newcomer in 1988, winning 45 percent of the vote, impressed state GOP officials. "It is tough to take on an incumbent with a massive war chest," he said, noting that Locke far outspent Hawkes in that campaign.

With help from Tallahassee this time out, Renke believes Hawkes can win, and said three other factors could help:

Hawkes' background as a former prosecutor and a family man.

The voting patterns of the district.

A strong anti-incumbent feeling among voters, made worse by the confusion in the U.S. Congress over the federal budget. "There's a "throw the bums out' philosophy out there," he said.

Renke said Hawkes' legal experience could help him draft laws that will help solve the state's crime and prison crisis. He also promised to appoint Hawkes to a task force on ethics reform that would draft a bill outlawing gifts by lobbyists to legislators, adding that he has made few such promises to Republican challengers.

Hawkes long has criticized Locke for accepting gifts, and has said he would not accept any.

Locke has denied that any gifts, such as hunting trips, influence his votes.