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To Sharpe, the future starts in Congress

Published Oct. 8, 2005

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 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."

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 and 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.

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.

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 on leave from that job.

Inside Sharpe's campaign 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."

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.

Strangers waved at the van, pulling up at stoplights to offer support. Sharpe 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. TV 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.