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Coe, foes make their case

To those who know some of the political history of the Hillsborough state attorney's office, this year's Fourth of July parade in Brandon might have been a bit perplexing.

Democratic incumbent Harry Lee Coe was there leaving no hand unshaken, working the crowd as he had last election, when many thought State Attorney Bill James couldn't be beaten. Some of the folks standing beside Coe on the Fourth once campaigned for James.

Also in the parade was Republican Mike Kavouklis, once an ardent Coe ally, now a political adversary working hard to win the job for himself.

And odder still, there was talk of another Republican candidate, John Moser, but no sightings this Independence Day, which politicians consider a mandatory-attendance event.

On Friday, the final chance to qualify for the ballot, the field became clear: Coe the lone Democrat, and two Republican hopefuls. They are an eccentric incumbent, a hard-edged challenger and a political newcomer _ all hoping to be the county's top prosecutor next year.

"The whole situation is very ironic," said longtime Tampa lawyer Mark Ober. "I guess that's why politics are as interesting as they are."

Coe rides again

The state attorney couldn't be still. The parade was about to start, and Coe supporters were waiting in the bed of a shiny red truck, between McGruff the Crime Dog and the Red-White-and-Blue Kazoo Review.

Coe paced at the left front fender. If anyone walked anywhere nearby, the long arms went out for a handshake. No one got by unacknowledged.

"How are you, great to see you," he said easily.

Last time, Coe said, he knocked on more than 5,000 doors, and he swears no one was rude to him. Even his critics acknowledge that Coe, 64, is something to behold on the campaign trail, cutting across the county like some sort of Tasmanian Devil. He is still hailed "Hangin' Harry," from his reputation for harsh sentences in 22 years as a judge.

But during Coe's term as prosecutor, editorial writers and columnists have not been as kind. He has been called eccentric, from his notoriously empty desktop to his sometimes-odd courtroom actions. In the nationally publicized case of Christopher Wilson, the black man set afire by two white men, critics noted that Coe moved furniture in the courtroom and said little in a jury selection "only dogs could hear," as one columnist put it.

Coe shrugs it off, saying he is proud of his office's record, his hard-working staff and innovative programs for elderly and domestic violence victims and white-collar and environmental crimes.

"The issues here _ crime, and being tough and being preventive _ are too important to become a personality war," he said. "I don't think (voters) care about whether I move furniture or what I have on my desk."

Coe has overcome more serious criticism. After questions were raised about his role in the delayed investigation of a sex-abuse case involving the husband of a prominent Democrat, a grand jury later exonerated him of any wrongdoing. In the racial burning case, both men were put in prison, and an appeals court found no error in the trial.

At his second July Fourth parade of the day, in Temple Terrace, Coe's truck was behind a congressional candidate who shook hands, then hopped in her car and zoomed off, leaving a wide space between parade entries. So again and again, Hillsborough's state attorney gamely broke into a long-legged trot, closing the gap.

"Fortunately," he said, "I love campaigning."

No petunia

Mike Kavouklis is not a man to mince words.

Diminutive, white-haired and filled with hard-edged energy, Kavouklis sat in his downtown office and ticked off goals: aggressive lawyers, trained investigators, tough prosecution of juveniles, zero tolerance of domestic violence, rape and child abuse.

He isn't shy about the man he once supported, a man he now calls "an embarrassment" in an office he terms "void of any leadership, competence or character."

On his pastel walls, an Ellis Island print shares space with certificates that trace 34 years of varied legal background: county and municipal judge, assistant attorney general, state prosecutor, Hillsborough County attorney. On a shelf rests a woman's hat festooned with patriotic ribbons, ready for the next time his wife, Irene, campaigns at his side.

"Mr. Coe became a great disappointment," said Kavouklis, 60. Coe promised not to be a figurehead, "to be more fair and even-handed," he said.

Said Coe: "He felt he was going to get a job here and I didn't hire him. . . . I'm not saying what effect that had. He will have to answer that."

Kavouklis vehemently denies that. In fact, he is often vehement _ which got him in trouble in court.

In 1991, a judge found him guilty of three counts of criminal contempt for disobeying her orders and sentenced him to fines and probation. He was later cleared of another allegation that he called the trial judge a "b----," and the state Bar declined to sanction him, saying the exchanges were heated but not meant to embarrass her.

Kavouklis says he was aggressively defending his client and seems surprised that anyone would think he has a temper. He sees himself as expressive and outspoken, "a person of passion."

"A state attorney shouldn't be a petunia, either," he said."They will not consider Mike Kavouklis a joke."

Raised in Tarpon Springs by Greek-born parents, Kavouklis has all but put aside his law practice to campaign full speed. Like Coe, he seems to be trying to defy the laws of physics by being everywhere at once.

On July Fourth, he was smiling and laid-back, breakfasting with supporters at Village Inn before a sweaty day of parades.

"Only two people I get up this early for," said a woman in a navy blue "I Like Mike" shirt. "That's Bob Dole and Mike."

No turning back

John Moser made his way through the narrow hallways of the Tampa Police Department, his hawkish blue eyes searching to engage someone long enough to press a brochure into his hand.

"You may not know his name, but you should," it reads, summing up Moser's 3-month-old campaign to unseat Coe.

"I've been a prosecutor for 11 years," Moser, 41, tells officers at roll call, in the crisp tone of a man who has spent nearly 20 years in the military. A major in the Army Reserves, he regularly works at Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base as an intelligence analyst.

Moser worked as a Hillsborough prosecutor and later at the statewide prosecutor's office, a job he would have gladly kept had he not been required to resign to run. A single parent of four, for Moser there is no turning back, which may account for the passion in his delivery.

"Are there people out there who could be a better state attorney than me?" he asked. "Yes. But they're not in the race.

"I won't make political promises, but I promise you that if John Moser's in office you'll have his very heart and soul," he said.

Moser's energy may be an asset on the campaign trail, but his political inexperience shows.

Take July Fourth. While his opponents were meeting voters, Moser was with his eldest son in the Keys on a Boy Scout outing. His staff "questioned my sanity," but he said he had no regrets.

Parades notwithstanding, there has been cause for optimism in the Moser camp. In his short time stumping, he has amassed about $28,000. Kavouklis has raised slightly more than $42,000 since he became a candidate in October. Coe has raised nearly $97,000.

As state attorney, Moser said he would restore the national reputation enjoyed in the James administration, one he says has suffered in conviction rates. Domestic violence is a priority, and in the debate between rehabilitating versus punishing criminals, he is steadfastly in the latter camp.

"For those people who are going to beat on our citizens, who are going to be a pariah on our society, we are going to aggressively go after them," he said.

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