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Challenger quizzes Gibbons, Sharpe

U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons and his opponent, Mark Sharpe, found common ground Thursday on the high road, as they took jabs at a campaign debate from a little-known write-in opponent.

David Weeks, 32, came visibly nervous to his first ever TV appearance at the WUSF-TV studio in a work shirt, undershirt peeking through an open collar.

In a hot campaign for the U.S. House District 11 seat that has focused on health care and welfare reform, crime and taxes, Weeks came to the League of Women Voters-sponsored debate with questions about gay marriage and abortion.

To Gibbons: "Do you consider homosexual relationships as legitimate and honorable as heterosexual relationships?"

The 74-year-old Democratic congressman, his wife of 48 years watching from the side, first reminded Weeks that he is happily married with grandchildren.

"I pity those who are homosexual. They're God's children, and I think we ought to treat them as such. We shouldn't give them any special privileges, nor should they be condemned to live terrible lives," Gibbons said.

Afterward, Gibbons elaborated.

"I see the way homosexuals are persecuted and discriminated against. Sure, I feel sorry for them. They have it tough," he said.

Sharpe, questioned about abortion by Weeks, an abortion opponent, said he is personally opposed to it.

"I believe the states should have that opportunity to place legitimate restrictions on abortion," said the Republican.

Weeks' name will not appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, but he is qualified to receive write-in votes.

This was the second debate between Gibbons and Sharpe, who will debate a final time at noon today at the Tiger Bay Club's luncheon on Harbour Island. They have scuffled over Sharpe's evasive responses to the abortion issue, and the issue of clout and experience versus youthful energy. But the two opponents were more genial before the taping Thursday, joking about football and microphone checks.

Gibbons in this go-round took on Sharpe's support for school vouchers, saying it is designed eventually to destroy the public school system. Sharpe, on leave from a teaching job at a private school, called the public schools "a total disaster. I've seen it. I've taught there."

In the debate between candidates for District 12, Rep. Charles Canady was the subject of blistering verbal attacks by Polk County Commissioner Robert Connors. The Lakeland-based district includes parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

"Mr. Canady has adopted a radical right position on nearly all the issues, voting against Medicaid, voting against funding for education, voting against our families," said Connors, his voice rising with emotion. "He rides crime like a horse. If this man did not have "no' in his vocabulary he would have nothing to say in Washington."

The men also tangled over crime legislation.

Connors, who has gone into politics full time, painted Canady as a "career politician" and said he entered the congressional race because Canady is "doing a job representing the worst in Congress." Canady countered, saying he'll leave Congress after four terms.