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Congressional race is for 15th or 1st term

The year that Sam M. Gibbons was first elected to Congress, John Glenn climbed into a Mercury space capsule and became a hero, the New York Mets bumbled through their first season and ground beef cost 43 cents a pound. Today, Glenn is a U.S. senator stained by the S&L scandal, the Mets are perennial contenders and hamburger costs what sirloin used to.

One thing hasn't changed since 1962, though. Gibbons, now a 70-year-old grandfather, still is the U.S. representative from Tampa's 7th Congressional District.

Gibbons says he still is pursuing his chief goals of trying to reduce the federal deficit and promoting world peace through free trade.

Gibbons is a Tampa native. He served with the 101st Airborne in the Normandy invasion in World War II, was trained as a lawyer at the University of Florida and spent 10 years in the Florida Legislature before winning the first of 14 terms in Congress.

The ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Gibbons says he will stay on "as long as my health holds and I can be of service."

Republican businessman Charles D. Prout III, the first candidate to challenge the incumbent since 1984, says Gibbons and most of his colleagues have been on Capitol Hill long enough.

"I'm against a government that's taking more from its citizens and giving less," Prout says. "What we have now is the best Congress money can buy. It's an imperial Congress that thinks it's above the people."

Prout cites the billions that taxpayers will ante up for the savings-and-loan bailout and the paralysis in government brought on by the budget crisis as two reasons to turn congressional incumbents out of office.

To counter that message, the Gibbons campaign has spent more than $457,000 for the re-election campaign. The money was spent on TV commercials, radio spots, full-color mailouts, ads in more than 20 publications and other campaign expenses.

"There's a temptation to broad-brush all the incumbents," Gibbons' campaign manager Reginald Garcia explains. "We're running as much against the generic frustration with Congress as against Mr. Prout."

Prout says he has collected and spent less than $5,000 in campaign contributions _ not even enough to require a campaign report to be filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

Now the co-owner of the American Pasta and Grille Restaurant in Valrico, Prout failed in a bid for the District 64 seat in the Florida House in 1988, and he predicts it will take "a small miracle in 1990" to unseat Gibbons. He says he is running in the 7th District so he can pick up name recognition for a run at a congressional seat expected to be created in 1992.

Prout, 47, is a New Jersey native, U.S. Air Force veteran and father of three. He attended Florida State University before embarking on a series of entrepreneurial ventures.

He says he made his first million with an Atlanta travel business in the 1970s and his second million with a Tampa real estate investment firm. But records show Prout was wiped out both times after seeking protection from his creditors under the Federal Bankruptcy Code.

Prout also has worked as an inventor, a commodities broker, the owner of a string of film-processing booths and the operator of a trucking company. Lawsuits from creditors have resulted in numerous judgments against him in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange counties, but Prout says he has satisfied all his debts, including some with casinos in New Jersey, and now pays cash for everything.

In 1985, Prout was charged with grand theft stemming from allegations that he falsified expense vouchers at a Tampa business called Dent-All. Prout says the accusations amounted to a vendetta against him by the dental insurance company's owner, Logan D. Browning, who Prout said had drained the company of working capital.

To avoid the cost of a defense, Prout said, he entered a program of pretrial intervention. He was never adjudicated in the case, and the charge was later expunged, leaving him without any arrest record.

Prout says he thinks his varied business experience allows him to understand the needs of the average constituent better than Gibbons, whom he characterizes as "sitting up there in his ivory tower."

Prout proposes taking some of the burden of government paper work off business owners by abolishing the federal income tax and replacing it with a federal sales tax. He favors a pure balance of payments, wants a rollback of all farm subsidies and says the United States should bill Japan and Germany for "protecting them and their oil."

He says the government should take a larger role in health care. He isn't opposed to abortion as long as it isn't subsidized by tax dollars.

Prout also has criticized Gibbons' support of a congressional pay raise at a time when Congress was raising taxes.

Gibbons defends the congressional pay raise taking salaries from $89,500 to $125,000 by saying that "without it, you wouldn't attract the right kind of people," and "only the rich would seek office." The tax increase in the budget passed last week, he says, spares the poor and hits the well-to-do the hardest, "and that's the way it ought to be."

Gibbons says he hasn't lost touch with the needs of his constituents, despite almost three decades on the Hill. He supported an increase in the minimum wage this year, he points out, and has voted consistently to protect cost-of-living increases for Social Security.

Gibbons adds that he was the first congressional proponent of individual retirement accounts, wrote the law allowing older Americans to keep the first $125,000 tax-free from the sale of their residence and continues to oppose any reduction in capital-gains taxes. He also is a co-sponsor of a bill that would remove the earnings limitation for Social Security recipients who wish to continue working.

Gibbons says the U.S. must move toward a national health care program. He supports a woman's right to abortion, opposes financing for Star Wars weapon systems and favors some regulation of handguns and assault weapons.