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Election season reaches colorful plateau at forum

The sure sign that the election season was winding down came early in School Board candidate Janet Herndon's opening comments.

A man near the front of the Crystal River Armory auditorium was mouthing her speech along with her.

"He's heard it before," Herndon told the audience as she hurriedly tried to find her place again.

For the candidates, Thursday night's political forum was the last outpost on the long campaign road where they could reach hundreds of potential voters in person before the Nov. 8 general election.

Armed with piles of buttons, stacks of brochures and armloads of signs, the candidates took their best shot at wooing voters into their philosophical corners.

Visitors to the forum, which was sponsored by the Citrus County Chronicle, had to file by an ominous display of politicians, politicians' families, politicians' supporters and those with an opinion on the state amendments _ all offering handfuls of literature _ before entering the main arena.

Once inside, they were witness to an almost-carnival atmosphere of colorful banners and balloons, the aroma of grilled hot dogs and the clamor of political hopefuls shaking hands, trading platforms and kissing babies.

Many of the candidates stood around the tables set up in the perimeter of the auditorium, encouraging passers-by to take their brochures or take a sign for their lawn or wear a hat supporting their candidacy.

County Commission candidate John Russo's booth had a better draw than dry platform handbills or boring bumper stickers.

Two youngsters behind the table beckoned voters over to a large sheet cake. "It's chocolate. It's chocolate," they were saying.

At the next table over, candidate Herndon's husband, Gary, was talking about the crayons with his wife's name which were available. "We're trying for the kid vote," he said with a wide grin.

State House of Representatives candidate Helen Spivey was shaking her head as she prepared to take her seat before the start of the speeches. On her way into the auditorium walking by those who oppose a ban on fishing nets, someone called to her, "Eat a manatee."

"Like I haven't heard that one before," said Spivey, who is know for her environmental activism.

Her opponent Gene Keith had some of the most visible campaign memorabilia at the event _ giant helium-filled balloons two to three times larger than the mirrored ball in the center of the auditorium.

The speeches began with two candidates for state office addressing the crowd of about 500.

Democratic candidate for secretary of state Ron Saunders talked about having "too many rules and too many regulations" that don't protect the people.

Bringing in the locally volatile issue of protecting water resources, Saunders warned, "I'll tell you right now, people in other counties are looking at your water."

Bill Nelson, who is the Democrat running for the job of treasurer and insurance commissioner, called the job he is seeking "one of Florida's toughest jobs."

His speech targeting insurance fraud and uninsured motorists as "a plague upon us."

The forum gave congressional candidate "Big Daddy" Don Garlits the opportunity to take some more swings at the record of incumbent Karen Thurman. "The choice is simple _ big government or small government," Garlits said. "I stand for small government."

Thurman staunchly defended her efforts to be responsive to her constituents and the needs of the county and discussed her support for funding the Key Training Center, the establishment of a weather radio for the county and efforts to protect water resources.

"We have a lot to be proud of and a lot more to do," she said.

As each made a point, their respective supporters reacted accordingly by waving signs and voicing their approval.

The same process of speech-giving and question-answering continued throughout the evening producing few surprises but an occasional response that tickled or annoyed the audience.

In the District 5 School Board race, Herndon's opponent B.J. Collins was asked how he had changed since he last lost a race to Herndon two years ago.

"People are learners or non-learners and hopefully you people have learned something," he answered.

In the District 4 county commission race, candidate Lee Alexander took on his opponent Jim Fowler saying he was a career businessman being backed by big business and the banking lobby. But Fowler said the commission needs someone with "good business skills," bringing an immediate response of Fowler sign waving from his supporters.

Circuit judge candidates Bill Law and Paul Hawkes verbally tussled over different philosophies on sentencing.

County court judge candidates Steve Hurm and Mark Yerman, complete with the most organized mass of sign-waving supporters of the night, spoke about changes that have already occurred and those still needed in the county's court system.

As Yerman listed the many things he has improved since the governor appointed him to the job, he ended with his effort to fix the air-conditioning system "so people don't faint like they used to."

As the forum came to an end, there was little left of Russo's cake other than a few stray crumbs. Nearby, one of those who was carrying a sign against the fishing net ban reading "We don't like frozen seafood" was munching down on one of the final pieces of cake.