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For Sharpe, the future begins in Congress

He is the political outsider, a Navy guy who came from nowhere to seek a $133,600 federal job with a thin resume and fast talk. Once again, he has big dreams.

Classic Mark Sharpe.

As a teenager in Altus, Okla., a newcomer in a close-knit farming town, he plastered big, bright signs on every wall of the two-story brick school: "Mark Sharpe. President of the sophomore class in '76, President of the U.S. in '96."

The other kids thought he was crazy. But he won.

He and high school buddy Andy Oden, now spokesman for Oklahoma's lieutenant governor, pledged that the first to run for president of the United States would make the other his running mate.

"We took him quite seriously then, and we still do," said high school classmate Jill Thacker, 34, now an Oklahoma state government employee. "He was the type of kid who read the New York Times every day. He knew in 10th grade his aspiration was to be president."

U.S. Congress is his first step.

Despite advice from established Republicans to try local politics first, Sharpe jumped into the 1992 race for Florida's 11th District to oust longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Sam Gibbons. Sharpe won the GOP primary, then earned a respectable 37 percent of the vote in the general election.

Now, in a campaign that began when his last one ended, Sharpe says he is better financed, better organized and confident he can unseat the acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He went to the people, a lonely and sometimes depressing task, walking neighborhoods to collect 30 or 40 signatures a day toward the 2,485 he submitted to get his name on the ballot.

Gibbons paid the $10,200 qualifying fee to get his name on the ballot.

It has been a relatively clean campaign. Gibbons took a shot at Sharpe's small income and found a distorted snapshot of Sharpe to use in current television spots.

Meanwhile, the most embarrassing personal detail to surface in background checks is Sharpe's voting record: He admits that while on military assignment he failed to vote by absentee ballot in at least three general elections, in 1984, 1986 and 1990.

And in a campaign year when bitter ex-spouses have haunted other candidates, Sharpe's offers praise.

"He is an honest guy," said Lynn Goff Danforth, 33, his college sweetheart and wife from 1984 to 1988. "He's got the right attitudes and the right goals. He would not do anything he thought people would think was politically incorrect."

She remarried and lives in Ohio. They have remained friends.

Gibbons has challenged Sharpe's conservative agenda. Sharpe opposes gun control, supports private school vouchers and somewhat reluctantly joined Rep. Newt Gingrich on the Capitol steps last month to sign the conservative Republican "Contract with America." He opposes the crime bill that Gibbons supported but walks inner-city streets promising to cure social ills. He favors speedy welfare reform and opposes health-care packages that smack to him of socialism.

Perhaps Gibbons' harshest criticism is of Sharpe's lack of experience. Gibbons, 74, has been in Congress 32 years. During that tenure, he fought to gain funding for Interstate 4, Curtis Hixon Hall and the new federal courthouse in Tampa. While Sharpe credits Rep. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, with saving MacDill Air Force Base, Gibbons said it was saved through his work. By the time he was Sharpe's age, as a state legislator, Gibbons helped pass legislation founding the University of South Florida. Gibbons parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and opposes assault weapons. In debates, Gibbons tells Sharpe he carried an assault rifle in World War II and knows the damage they do.

Sharpe, 34, spent eight years in the Navy as an intelligence officer. After his release from active duty in December 1991, he worked first as a temporary public school teacher, then as an eighth grade history teacher at private Seminole Presbyterian School in Tampa. Sharpe, who does not have a Florida teaching certificate, is currently on leave from that job.

Sharpe was a military kid, the oldest of two, born at MacDill where his father, Dean, worked as an air traffic controller. His younger sister, Celeste, is a tax lawyer in Tampa.

He played football in high school, until another kid knocked his teeth loose. He acted the Cary Grant role in Arsenic and Old Lace. He was popular, outgoing and disciplined. His friends remember him earnestly reading U.S. News and World Report at age 16.

Thacker, a high school classmate, who was escorted by the 17-year-old Sharpe to the Altus Bulldogs' football field for homecoming ceremonies, said he also was sensitive to his friends. As her name was called, Sharpe pulled a small jewelry box from his pocket. "No matter what happens, you're still No. 1," he told the nervous girl.

The box contained a necklace and a gold No. 1 charm with a tiny diamond in the center. Thacker, who was crowned homecoming queen, wore it for years, then gave it to her first-born niece on her first birthday.

"I held her and rocked her and told her that was the most special story from my childhood," Thacker said.

Following his high school graduation, his father was reassigned to MacDill and the family returned to Tampa.

Sharpe's relationship with his father, perhaps more than any other factor, influenced his politics and goals.

"He loved this country, and he just taught me there are some things worth sacrificing for. He was the one who taught me if you work hard enough you can succeed at anything," Sharpe said.

Dean Sharpe was stoic, honest and conservative. He served in Vietnam and Korea. Father and son watched Sunday morning news shows from the dining room table, then argued politics. That's where the junior Sharpe learned to fast talk his position until he won.

Mark Sharpe was 12 when his dad began sending off for Air Force Academy brochures. Sharpe, who later graduated from Florida State University, was nominated to West Point by Gibbons but didn't make the cut.

When cancer was diagnosed in the senior Sharpe in 1989, at age 55, his son fought the disease with him. He bought books on vitamin and brown rice therapy. He bought a juicer to make carrot juice. He refused to accept the diagnosis that the cancer was terminal.

Dean Sharpe's death the following August shook Sharpe, who still mourns the loss.

"I still haven't gone back and looked at it," he said. At the time, "it was plan the funeral. What are you going to do with the house? What am I going to do with my life?"

One year later, he left the military. Sharpe says his decision was made one night in Washington, D.C., as he took a wrong turn on his way home from the Pentagon. He wound up in public housing and said he was stunned by the wretched conditions.

It was a difficult decision.

He had come up through the Navy's intelligence school in Denver and attained the rank of lieutenant with a goal of going as far as possible as fast as he could. As a briefing officer, he gathered sensitive military information and reported to senior officers. His debates with his stern dad had trained him to stay calm under pressure. He served on the U.S.S. Independence on Cold War activities during the 1980s, worked in the White House Situation Room and reported to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

"He had to be fast on his feet, had to be articulate, had to have a breadth of experience to understand questions that may follow to give an intelligent answer," said retired Navy Adm. Jesse Hernandez, briefed by Sharpe in the mid-1980s.

"That experience briefing would stand him in good stead in a campaign," said Hernandez, who traveled extensively and was briefed several times daily by different teams of officers. He doesn't remember Sharpe.

The Navy will not release personnel records. According to copies of Navy evaluations supplied by Sharpe, he was on a fast track. Commanding officers praised his "executive level briefing skills," his writing, maturity under stress, efficiency and initiative in improving procedures.

"An officer who makes things happen," wrote his commanding officer after his stint at U.S. Central Command at MacDill.

Despite the good evaluations, he resigned his $37,000-a-year job to seek political office. His girlfriend's parents thought he was crazy. His commanding officer poked holes in his plans. For the next year, he said he used his clearance credentials to study how federal government worked.

He has walked the streets in this last campaign, knocking on doors. The district is plastered with navy and yellow Sharpe yard signs, more than 1,300, according to a poster on the wall of his campaign headquarters. His mom, Mary, runs a campaign office jammed sometimes until after midnight with volunteers. His sister maintains a low profile. His longtime girlfriend, St. Petersburg loan officer Laurie Harris, 31, is supportive but does not like politics.

Inside headquarters it could be high school politics all over again: One supporter put up a sign that says "Our 150-percent equals Mark's 52-percent." His uncle sketched a banner that says "Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, and Be Sharp." Someone has pasted a frowning snapshot of Gibbons to the wall: "Sam on election day," it says.

On a recent Saturday morning, 29 volunteers gathered to campaign. Sharpe, nursing hot coffee, was silent amid the bustle. His mother handed him a banana and a Sprite as he left.

"You behave," she mouthed through the window of the white campaign van.

The radio was turned to WFLA-AM 970, Rush Limbaugh territory. Sharpe turned up the volume as talk host Mark Larson reviewed the prior day's debate between Sharpe and Gibbons at the Tiger Bay Club.

"What about that swipe?" Larson said. Gibbons suggested that Sharpe didn't earn enough to pay taxes. "You better pay taxes, Sam. You voted yourself a big frickin' raise."

Sharpe laughed.

Strangers waved at the van, pulling up at stop lights to offer support. He was recognized as he walked through a Temple Terrace community center, at a Catholic church's carnival, on a walk through Gibbons territory in Progress Village. Television ads have bought him the recognition he lacked in the last campaign. In about a week, he'll find out if that translates into votes.

"It's just a matter of deciding if we want to give a young guy like you a chance," the driver of a white Coupe de Ville hollered across traffic on Fletcher Avenue.