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Candidates crowd into state's political races

When the clock struck noon Friday, the state Division of Elections in Tallahassee closed the books on what will be the busiest election season in Florida in years.

Sandra T. Green of Eustis, a last-minute entry into a state House race, became the 694th and final candidate to qualify to run for a state office during the allowed 96-hour period.

State officials could not say if this year's number of candidates set an all-time record, but it was well above the 495 candidates who sought state office in 1992, or the 599 who ran in 1994.

Part of the surge is due to a tight battle between Democrats and Republicans to control the state Legislature. Republicans could take over both chambers for the first time in this century.

"I'd put it on what's at stake," said Rich Heffley, assistant secretary of state. "You're talking about elections for control of the House and control of the Senate."

Term limits, which take effect in four years, also may be an influence as incumbents reconsider their futures and candidates jockey for position.

At the same hour Friday, qualifying for local office ended in all 67 of the state's counties. Several communities reported remarkably crowded races, especially for vacant seats. A single School Board seat in Hillsborough County drew nine candidates; a county commission race in Hernando drew eight.

It was a record year for candidates to get on the ballot by petition, instead of paying Florida's highest-in-the-nation qualifying fees. There were 99 candidates for state office who used petitions, compared with 57 in 1992 and 64 in 1994, state officials said. Counties reported high numbers of local candidates who tried petitions as well.

The end of qualifying provided considerable relief for a large percentage of incumbents who are unopposed and therefore automatically re-elected. "There were a lot of Nervous Nellies hanging around," Heffley said.

Statewide chess game

Because Florida does not elect its next governor, Cabinet and U.S. senator until 1998, the biggest prize in the state this year is control of the Legislature and the state's congressional delegation, which had a separate qualifying period last month.

Both parties were maneuvering their troops up until the end on Friday. The Democrats, for example, shifted a House candidate from one district to another with just minutes to spare before the deadline.

Democrats now control the state House by a margin of 63-57, meaning the Republicans would take over if they won just four seats. At least three of their top targets are in the Tampa Bay area:

In Pasco County, Alan Levine and Joan Kelley will carry the GOP's hopes against state Rep. Debra Prewitt, D-New Port Richey.

In Pinellas County, two Democrats and two Republicans are in a hard fight to replace Peter R. Wallace of St. Petersburg, a Democrat who is the departing speaker of the House.

In Hillsborough County, one Republican and two Democrats are competing to replace state Rep. Jim Davis, a Democrat who is running for Congress.

Statewide, 50 of the 120 House seats are unchallenged, the bulk of them in South Florida. But in this area, a majority of seats are being contested: six of nine in Pinellas, six of 12 in Hillsborough, three of four in Pasco, all three in Hernando and the one seat in Citrus.

In the state Senate, Republicans now have a 22-18 lead, and there are 21 seats up for election this year.

In 10 of those seats, incumbents are unopposed. Five seats are vacant. Six incumbents are being challenged.

Democrats are challenging incumbent Republican Sens. W.D. Childers of Pensacola, Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor and William G. "Doc" Myers of Hobe Sound. The Republicans are challenging Sens. Patsy Ann Kurth of Malabar, Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven and Tom Rossin of West Palm Beach.

In this area, Latvala drew a late-entry challenge from Democrat Sue Humphreys.

There are busy races to replace Sen. Karen Johnson, D-Inverness, and Malcolm Beard, R-Seffer, who are leaving office.

The Tampa Bay area's other two senators up this year, John Grant and James T. Hargrett Jr. of Tampa, drew no opponents, even though Hargrett's seat in District 21 had been the subject of mighty legal struggles between the parties over redistricting based on race, and had to be redrawn.

Colorful, crowded, historical

In the counties around Tampa Bay, crowded ballots will include some interesting names from the past.

Joe Kotvas was led out of the Hillsborough County Courthouse in handcuffs in the early 1980s, accused and convicted of bribe-taking along with two other commissioners. Now he is seeking a commission seat, and his opponent in the Democratic primary is Jan Platt _ one of the two uninvolved, unindicted commissioners back then. Hillsborough has contested elections for state attorney, public defender and all three County Commission seats on the ballot. Pasco County's sheriff's race will be a trip down memory lane. Incumbent Lee Cannon's challengers include a controversial former sheriff, Jim Gillum, as well as a top aide to former Sheriff John Short. Short was indicted and removed from office in the 1980s.

Pasco's elections also feature a pair of identical twins, one running for County Commission, the other to replace veteran Property Appraiser Ted Williams, whose job is destined to be taken over by a Republican. There also is a tax-collector candidate discovered to have owed back taxes.

In Citrus County, the school superintendent is retiring, so a state senator and a School Board member are among those running for his job. The sheriff was retiring but now is running for the state senator's job. A crop of candidates is chasing the empty School Board seat, the empty sheriff's job and another vacant County Commission seat.

In Hernando County, the man with the concession to sell food at the courthouse decided to join a County Commission race to replace June Ester, who is running for property appraiser. The race to replace another retiring commissioner has drawn eight hopefuls.

In Pinellas County, the clerk of court, sheriff and tax collector have opponents, while the elections supervisor and property appraiser do not. All three incumbents on the controversial School Board drew opponents, but two of three incumbent county commissioners did not. Four candidates are trying to replace legendary Commissioner Chuck Rainey, who is retiring.

_ Staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.