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Democrats fighting to keep lease on House

With the state Senate likely to remain in Republican hands, the real election 1996 battleground lies in the state House of Representatives, where Democrats have presided for 100 years.

Republicans increasingly have gained ground in the House in recent years, drawing within four seats of a majority in the 1994 elections.

If Republicans can win the House and retain the Senate in November, Florida's Legislature will become the first in the South to be under GOP control since Reconstruction.

There are 13 open seats in the 120-member House this year. All but one were held by Democrats, but many are in areas where Republicans have been gaining strength.

A dozen incumbent Democrats bowed out this year, leaving open seats and hotly contested races in many districts, particularly those along the Interstate 4 corridor, where Republicans have steadily gained strength. A single Republican, Rep. Buddy Johnson, R-Plant City, stepped down.

Two years ago, the Democratic Party spent about $7-million on legislative races, while Republicans spent more than $4-million _

in addition to the $21-million spent by candidates. This year, with the stakes even higher, both parties expect to spend more.

Fifty House candidates will be re-elected without opposition: 22 Democrats and 28 Republicans. The battle for the remaining 70 seats will focus on about two dozen targeted races. Much of the fight will be waged in the Tampa Bay area and the districts along I-4.

"I feel very good about it," said Rep. Buzz Ritchie, D-Pensacola, who will become speaker if Democrats retain control. "But it's too early to tell. We're still a long way off, and I know we have a lot of work ahead of us."

Ritchie faces opposition of his own: William H. Marshall, a recent convert to the GOP.

Even the race for the traditionally Democratic seat held by House Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg is expected to behot. The district is almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, and both parties are fielding strong candidates.

Both sides already are claiming victory.

"That's a Democratic seat," Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Falmlen said. "Whoever wins the primary wins the seat."

"It is traditionally Democratic but has a majority registration of Republicans," said John Waring, the Republican Party's specialist on House races. "Besides, we have pretty good luck at winning open seats from former speakers. We got T. K. Wetherell's seat and Bo Johnson's seat."

The Democratic candidates are Margo Fischer, wife of St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, and Martha Maddux, a former City Council member. The Republicans are Cary Burns, a neighborhood association president, and Frank Farkas, a chiropractor.

Major fights are brewing for virtually every open seat except a Broward County position left vacant when Rep. Steve Feren, D-Plantation, jumped into an open state Senate race. Democrat Steve Effman will be elected to the House without opposition.

Republican incumbents targeted by the Democrats include Reps. Mike Fasano, New Port Richey; Faye Culp, Tampa; Evelyn Lynn, Ormond Beach; Bob Casey, Gainesville; and Rob Wallace, Tampa.

Democratic incumbents targeted by the Republicans include Reps. George Crady, Yulee; Annie Betancourt, Miami; Tracy Stafford, Wilton Manors; Vernon Peeples, Punta Gorda; Lori Edwards, Auburndale; Debra Prewitt, New Port Richey; Helen Spivey, Inverness; and Durell Peaden Jr., Crestview.

Gov. Lawton Chiles has pledged to get deeply involved in the House races and already has taken sides in the Democratic primary for the seat Lynn holds. In that district, former state Rep. Jimmy Charles of Ormond Beach is trying to make a comeback after winning an acquittal on sexual solicitation charges filed during the 1994 election.

The state Democratic Party views Charles as a risk and has encouraged Ted Doran, a Daytona Beach lawyer who planned to run in a neighboring district, to oppose him. Doran switched districts after getting a telephone call from the governor.

Chiles rewarded the switch by making a quick trip to the district to meet with Doran's supporters, an appearance that angered Charles' supporters.

Chiles said he took the unusual step of getting involved in a party primary because he wanted to be sure the Democrats won.

Inverness Democrat Helen Spivey won her House seat in 1994, overcoming her own party's support of another candidate. But she now has the party's backing in a fight against a Republican challenger to be determined in a September primary.

Republicans are aiming to take the seat back. It's the only one they lost in the 1994 election.

But Falmlen thinks Spivey is safe.

"You won't find anyone in the Tolle House (Democratic headquarters) underestimating Helen Spivey," he said.

Falmlen predicts that the Democrats will wind up with more than 63 seats in the 120-member House when the dust settles. The Republicans say they'll be the ones with a majority.

"It's going to be a fun fall," Falmlen said.

_ Times researcher Kati Schardl contributed to this report.

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