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Secretary of state race pits two of the best

One in a series examining the races for the Florida Cabinet.

Stephen MacNamara says it doesn't matter if Ron Saunders or Sandra Mortham is elected secretary of state Nov. 8: He'll still feel bad about the outcome.

"It's sad that the state of Florida will lose one of them after this race," says MacNamara, a Florida State University professor who has been ranking legislators for the Miami Herald for five years.

To MacNamara, the Mortham-Saunders race pits two of Florida's brightest political stars _ two four-term legislators who rose quickly to top positions in their parties. He calls Saunders the best male member of the Legislature in the past decade and says Mortham was the best female member.

"Both are incredible consensus builders, both articulate, both are well versed in the issues," MacNamara says.

Even the candidates for secretary of state, which includes responsibility for elections, cultural affairs and corporate issues, have had trouble finding something serious to argue about.

Saunders, 39, a Democrat from Key West, has said, "I wish there were more distinctions."

And Mortham, 43, a Republican from Largo, acknowledged on a live radio debate last week that "Ron and I agree on a lot of issues."

Like crime _ both are talking tough. Mortham endorses the concept that prisoners should serve 85 percent of their sentences. Saunders trumps that by saying he thinks violent offenders should serve 100 percent of their time, with some reduction for good behavior.

Both are strong advocates of public education. Both say better schools would mean less crime. They want to scale down Tallahassee's role in education but don't favor eliminating the Department of Education. They also oppose vouchers for private school tuition.

Both are for abortion rights.

And both promise to be strong proponents for the arts and historic preservation, two areas that fall under the secretary of state's office. Both agree that state money for the arts should not come with any censorship strings attached.

Their legislative careers are also similar. Both arrived in Tallahassee in 1986 and rose quickly to positions of power. Mortham became the first woman to head the Republican caucus, while Saunders was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Their performance in Tallahassee earned praise from their peers.

"I have a lot of respect for Ron," says Rep. Miguel De Grandy, a Miami Republican who is supporting Mortham. "Ron's been a strong and effective leader."

And Rep. Anne Mackenzie, D-Fort Lauderdale, praised Mortham for showing "a willingness to be bipartisan when it comes of issues involving women and children."

And the two seem to be dividing the newspaper endorsements around the state. Mortham has the support of the Orlando Sentinel, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Fort Myers News-Press. Saunders got the nod from the Times, the Gainesville Sun, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the Tallahassee Democrat and the Bradenton Herald.

With so much in common, the two candidates have found themselves fighting over taxes. Mortham says she's for less taxes and less government. Saunders says he has only approved taxes needed to balance the state budget and dismisses Mortham's criticisms of him as a tax-and-spend liberal as "Republican rhetoric."

They've also argued over campaign financing. Mortham is not taking public matching funds for her campaign, and she has criticized Saunders for accepting the public money. Saunders has attacked his opponent for taking an improper $25,000 contribution from the Republican Party. Mortham later returned the money.

Even as their arguments become more vocal and their television commercials more visible, the two candidates acknowledge that the voters aren't paying much attention. The secretary of state, after all, isn't the most visible person in Tallahassee.

In campaign appearances, both stress the power of sitting on the Florida Cabinet.

"The secretary of state has a vote equal to the governor on issues like education, crime and the environment," says Saunders. "That's very important."

Mortham says Floridians need a female perspective on the Cabinet: "There are no women on the Cabinet today, and I think we need a woman's perspective at the executive branch."

Voters, if they have made up their minds, aren't making it easy for these candidates. Polls consistently show the pair within a few percentage points of each other. In some, Saunders is ahead. In others, it's Mortham.

Talking politics

Sandra Mortham knows her way around Largo High School. She's a graduate. So are her husband and her two sons. Mortham's husband, Allen, is the assistant principal here.

On a sunny morning in October, Mortham has taken time out from her campaign to talk politics with a group of students.

"You need to look for a candidate that really inspires you," Mortham tells them. "And you need to ask candidates, "What do you stand for?'

"

So the students do just that. One asks Mortham about gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush's plan on school vouchers.

"I do not agree with Jeb Bush on every issue," Mortham says. "I don't believe in vouchers. I believe in public school choice. And I think local people should make as many decisions as possible."

Health care reform?

"There's no question we need more affordable health care, but I do not believe the government ought to manage health care."

Abortion?

"I do not believe it is the government's decision to make," she says.

Mortham tells the students that it is important that a fiscal conservative is elected to the state Cabinet.

"I'm running the most frugal race in the state of Florida," says Mortham, who has raised more than $600,000. "We're traveling by car. Since we started, we've covered over 7,000 miles and been in all 67 counties."

After the questions are over, Mortham asks the students to join her campaign as volunteers. She offers them bumper stickers to take home.

"But don't take them if you're not going to use them. They cost money."

On a campaign stop in downtown Dade City, Ron Saunders is missing no opportunities to mention his name and his race.

"I'm Ron Saunders, running for Cabinet _ secretary of state," he tells the older couple he stops on the sidewalk. "I'll be on the ballot in November, right under the governor's race."

The man and woman smile politely.

"We can't vote," the woman says. "We're from Connecticut."

Saunders smiles and moves along quickly to find a Florida voter, like Suzy Nikolai, who runs O'Suzanna's, a women's clothing store.

"I want to put more emphasis on arts and historic preservation because it's a good investment," Saunders tells her.

O'Suzanna's and many of the other fashion, antique and gift shops that have sprouted in downtown Dade City in recent years were helped by the Main Street program, a downtown redevelopment plan operated out of the secretary of state's office.

As a fifth-generation native of Key West, Saunders says he has seen the economic value of historic development and the arts.

Later, Saunders tells at a lunch of Pasco County politicians that if he's elected, "you'll have another friend in Tallahassee."

The lunch crowd _ people like former Rep. John Long, County Commissioner Sylvia Young, Sheriff Lee Cannon, Property Appraiser Ted Williams and Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning _ don't need Saunders to explain to them what the secretary of state does.

But Saunders says that's not always the case.

"People think I'm running against Warren Christopher. They want to know my position on Haiti and Bosnia," Saunders says.

"Political animals'

Allison DeFoor, the Monroe County Republican who was Bob Martinez's running mate in 1990, is torn over the Saunders-Mortham race.

As the local Republican Party chairman, he's hoping for a Mortham victory.

"I know Sandy Mortham, and I think a lot of her," DeFoor says.

But he also knows Saunders. The two were law partners, and both took part in the political reform movement in the Keys a decade ago. They are still close friends.

"Ron's very bright, and he's political down to his toes. His rise in the House was just meteoric," says DeFoor.

DeFoor says he expects this race to go down to the wire.

"I think the polling probably reflects the reality," he says. "You've got two really bright and ambitious political animals going at it here."

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