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Stakes are high in Senate races

Don Sullivan, orthopedic surgeon and Republican candidate for state Senate, was doing a little carving on Sen. Jeanne Malchon. "My opponent has the unenviable record of having engaged in what I call the Malchon Taxathon," Sullivan told a gathering of Stetson Law School students last week. "Because for the last eight years, every single year she has voted for a tax increase."

It is a textbook attack on Malchon, and it is the time of year when challengers break out tactics that have worked in the past. For years, Republicans have found success by bludgeoning Democrats with the tax stick.

Never mind that 1990 is not quite as good a year for the traditional Republican tax attack. President Bush has abandoned his no-new-taxes stand, and Republican Gov. Bob Martinez has presided over the largest tax increases in Florida history.

If it worked once, it might work again. And seldom have the stakes for winning state Senate races been so high.

If Republicans gain a Senate majority, they will have achieved a historic political breakthrough. The Florida Senate would become the first legislative chamber in the South to go Republican since Reconstruction.

The Democrats appear to have a safe hold on the state House. But with control of the Senate, Republicans would have a hand in the redrawing of state legislative and congressional boundaries that occurs every 10 years based on a new census. Without control of the Senate, they fear that once again they will be gerrymandered out of power and remain on the sidelines until the end of the century.

Democrats hold a 23-17 majority, but the Republicans have set their sights on capturing two of the three seats vacated by Democrats and upsetting at least two incumbent Democrats. The race for Malchon's south Pinellas seat is one of 10 pivotal races that will determine which party controls the Senate in 1991.

"Overall we have a very good chance of winning at least six or seven of these seats that are being contested," said Jim Scott, a Fort Lauderdale senator expected to become Senate president if the GOP wins control. "We could end up with 22."

Wishful thinking, scoffed Gwen Margolis, the North Miami Democrat who would become the first woman Senate president if the Democrats hold on.

"All the incumbents are in excess of 10 points up right now" in polls taken by Democratic pollsters, Margolis said. Democratic strategists are optimistic about knocking off one incumbent Republican, and they think they will retain one or two of the seats being vacated by Democrats. Margolis said she can maintain or even expand on the 23-17 advantage.

Conflicting sentiments

The outcome in several key races may come down to conflicting voter sentiments. Which is stronger _ anti-incumbent fever or the backlash against negative attacks?

In the south Pinellas Senate race, Sullivan sent out a slick flier with a cover that says, "Jeanne Malchon has a present for you." Inside it says, "A new state income tax!"

Malchon introduced a resolution in 1987 that would have put an income tax on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. She says she did it only to draw attention to the inadequacy of the penny sales tax that the Legislature approved after repealing the controversial tax on services. The resolution went nowhere.

Sullivan pushes the point. "The people are opposed to increasing taxes," Sullivan said."Our senator is not pushing an effort to oppose this constantly increasing tax burden."

To the contrary, Malchon said. She favored a tax increase _ the services tax _ that not only would have provided adequate revenues for years to come but also would have cost the average family less than the penny sales tax did.

Malchon also tells audiences what she has done in the areas of health care, consumer protection and elderly services. She was the primary Senate supporter of "living will" legislation, and she fought the tobacco lobby to get clean-air legislation enacted.

In its battle for the Senate, the GOP is getting ammunition from a busy direct mail operation in St. Petersburg. Jack Latvella, who runs one of the biggest political advertising print shops in the South, produces campaign literature for eight Republican candidates. He is paid by the Republican Party, which has amassed a huge amount of money for the Senate battles.

Among Latvella's clients are Sullivan; Tom Hogan, who is challenging Sen. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon; and Ernie Caldwell, a Polk County commissioner who is running against state Rep. Rick Dantzler for an open Senate seat.

Hogan has relentlessly hammered the incumbent for taking a trip to the Kentucky Derby at lobbyists' expense. He also has picked apart Thurman's campaign contributions to bolster a charge that she is voting with "special interests" such as Big Oil.

The attacks against Thurman are similar to those being used in the Daytona Beach area against incumbent Democrat Tom Brown.

"All these races are generic," Thurman said. "It's being run through the Republican Party. It's like they have cardboard candidates. They have no issues."

Hogan said his attacks bring out valid issues for the voters to decide. "We've taken some criticism for mudslinging," he said. "I don't consider it mudslinging. We're talking about issues. Incumbency is a two-edged sword."

Turning the tables

Another two-edged weapon is the strategy of attacking incumbents for alleged violations of ethics rules and campaign finance law.

In most of the pivotal races, Republican challengers are attacking Democratic incumbents. But one Democratic challenger is turning the tables in the Melbourne area.

In District 16, political newcomer Patsy Ann Kurth is gaining on incumbent Tim Deratany in a seat thought to be solidly Republican until a few weeks ago.

Deratany is under investigation for failing to disclose trips he took to Paris and Mexico that were paid for in part by lobbyists.

"They've thrown a lot at him, but we haven't seen it's had any effect yet," said Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, one of the leaders of the effort to take control of the Senate.

"It's still a pretty heavily Republican district."

Margolis, the Democratic senator running the campaigns, saidKurth has pulled even with Deratany in a recent poll.

In South Florida, Republicans are taking aim at Sen. Eleanor Weinstock, D-Palm Beach.

It has been the costliest state Senate race this year, with Weinstock raising $309,000 and Republican candidate Bill Smith raising $235,000.

Republicans also targeted the seat held by Tom McPherson, but when McPherson lost in the primary to former Sen. Ken Jenne, the Republican effort lost momentum. Jenne, well-known in Broward, served in the state Senate for 10 years and ran for insurance commissioner in 1988.

As the fall campaign heads into the final week, Republican consultants promise continued attacks on the Democratic incumbents. Where they are close, the Republicans hope to catch up and move ahead in the final days.

The Democrats are counting on a large Democratic turnout and less Democratic crossover to the GOP than in the past three elections.

Having Lawton Chiles at the top of the ticket, they say, makes it easier to persuade voters to stick with Democrats on down the line.

Then there are the unknowns, the unpredictables, the unmeasureables. Control of the state Senate could come down to sunshine and rain.

"It's terrible to have races that are that close," lamented Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Fort Myers, chairman of the committee trying to boost Republican candidates. "Weather and turnout have a tremendous impact on close races."

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