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Candidates get down and dirty at forum

It was a night for political animals. For four hours Thursday night, candidates took jabs at each other at Murphy's restaurant before local cable television cameras and a crowd made up mostly of their political entourages and the media.

Some races produced down and dirty campaigning. The candidates, who sat next to each other on the stage, often grimaced or shook their head as their opponents launched verbal attacks.

Other races were downright friendly. County Commission opponents Almyr Rooks and Chester White sat elbow to elbow and shared a secret laugh as they waited for their turn under the bright lights.

The candidates' forum, sponsored by the Citrus County Chronicle, put candidates for the School Board, the County Commission, the state Legislature and Congress on the spot.

Journalists from the Chronicle and the Times and real estate broker Walt Driggers, representing the United Chambers of Commerce, took turns questioning the candidates.

The night began tamely with School Board candidates June Black and Merrill Osterhout stressing the messages they have been delivering throughout their campaigns.

But Black reserved a surprise for the end. To a chorus of boos, she ripped Osterhout for promoting himself as a businessman who would bring fiscal responsibility to the school budget when in fact his hardware store failed.

Osterhout, who sat stone-faced during the flurry, did not get a chance to respond because he already had given his closing comments.

Sheila Whitelaw, a Republican in the District 3 School Board race, was asked to name a difference between herself and opponent Patricia Vitter. The pair looked at each other, then Mrs. Whitelaw said, "She's wearing red and I'm in green."

The testiest matches were any that featured an incumbent. Challengers uniformly attacked the officeholders on ethics and wasteful spending. The incumbents paraded out their accomplishments as elected officials.

State Rep. Dick Locke, D-Inverness, and Republican challenger Paul Hawkes sounded like a broken record as Hawkes continued his attacks on Locke for accepting hunting trips from lobbyists and using office money for personal expenses.

"It's the same old story, the same old song, the same old verse," Locke said.

The audience clearly sided with Locke, cheering him heartily and booing Hawkes.

Hawkes, who gave his closing comments first, continued to mumble loudly while Locke gave his statement. A frustrated Locke sarcastically offered the microphone to Hawkes and asked whether he would like to give Locke's closing remarks.

Hawkes replied, "I'd be glad to talk," and reached for the microphone. "I'll bet you would," said Locke, quickly yanking it back.

State Sen. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, called the attacks of Republican challenger Tom Hogan "a smokescreen." Hogan, a Brooksville lawyer, criticized Thurman for accepting gifts from oil companies and taking a trip to the Kentucky Derby.

Several newcomers jumped on the bandwagon of no new taxes, saying that they would cut waste out of their boards' budgets if elected.

School Board candidate Lennie Berger, a Republican, called $75,000 to upgrade a cafeteria entrance and $20,000 to redesign lights in the bus barn "obvious waste" in the board's $83-million budget.

His opponent, Democratic incumbent Karen Johnson, spent much of her time defending the expenditures and several policies of the current school board.

At one point, while Berger was answering a question, the duct tape holding the Chronicle's banner to the wall gave way, and the banner crashed with a bang.

As technicians scrambled to reset wires the banner knocked out, a non-plussed Berger made sure the delay would not count against his allotted time to speak.

Only one candidate didn't attend the forum: U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, who is in Washington, D.C., wrestling with the federal budget.

His opponent, Democrat Art Johnson from Gainesville, outlined his views on several issues before a restless crowd. He conceded he is the underdog.

"It's like a David vs. Goliath campaign," he said.

As each race wound up, the candidates' supporters left the restaurant's meeting room. Only a sparse crowd of political die-hards were on hand at 11 p.m., when the four hours of debate concluded.