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Deadline brings mixed feelings

Some candidates celebrated, some watched quietly, and others realized they'd have to cancel their vacations and hit the campaign trail as the deadline passed Friday to qualify for the 1996 elections.

"Happy new year," shouted Rep. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, as the deadline rolled by without an opponent surfacing.

Villalobos was not alone. Sixty legislators won re-election without opposition Friday: 10 senators and 50 representatives.

The noon deadline marked the end of the longest week for many politicians _ days spent waiting and watching as candidates ante up money and paperwork.

Legislators, state attorneys, circuit judges, Supreme Court justices and public defenders all must file their paperwork in Tallahassee. Many candidates drive in for the final day so they'll immediately know whether they have drawn an opponent.

Candidates and their supporters staked out positions at seven public access computer terminals set up by Secretary of State Sandra Mortham. At each terminal a small crowd gathered behind the person who got possession of the keyboard to watch the names roll by in each race.

David Rancourt, director of the state division that handles the campaign paperwork for all candidates, presided over the chaotic scene in his office. Cellular phones rang like alarm clocks in the crowd as nervous candidates called those they had sent to the Capitol to keep watch.

"It was worth the experience to see this once," said Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Stan Mills, "but I'm not entirely sure I'd come back, certainly not without a cell phone. I felt naked without one."

Mills was among those heaving a sign of relief as the deadline passed and left him unopposed.

"I'm nervous as heck," said Chris Walker, a 21-year-old Florida State University political science major who qualified at 11:20 a.m. to run against state Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach.

Walker was a bit flustered when asked to produce his driver's license to prove his identity.

"I just drove all the way over here without my driver's license, but don't tell anyone," Walker explained to the crowd of reporters, elections officials and politicians who surrounded him.

His candidacy was saved by a division employee who recognized him from a prior meeting and agreed to vouch for his identity.

At 11:35 a.m. Sandra T. Green, a Democrat from Eustis, was the last candidate to formally qualify. A former Lake County School Board member, she's running against Rep. Stan Bainter, R-Eustis. She waited until the last minute because she had been considering running for the Senate instead.

There was one last-minute change that's a sign of the tight contest over control of the House. Democrat Ted Doran of Daytona Beach decided to run in District 27 against former Rep. Jimmy Charles, a Democrat from Ormond Beach, instead of in another race.

Charles was defeated after being arrested on a sex solicitation charge a few weeks before the 1994 election. He was later acquitted by a jury and is trying to make a comeback.

Scott Falmlen, the state Democratic Party's executive director, was on hand to write a $1,868 check for Doran to switch races.

Asked why the party was helping one Democrat oppose another, Falmlen said: "We want to win."

When noon arrived, the crowd evaporated. Some candidates went out to lunch to celebrate while others beat a hasty retreat home to begin the campaign.