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Senate likely to stay in GOP's hands

For months it looked as if Florida's Democrats were really going to try and oust Senate Dean W. D. Childers from his Pensacola seat.

They are still furious with Childers, who jilted their party when he became a Republican. And they're still smarting over losing control of the state Senate to the Republicans two years ago.

But increasingly, it appears neither Childers nor the GOP has much to fear.

Childers has a $475,000 campaign war chest and an opponent _ fielded at the last minute _ who has never run for public office and isn't at all well known in a district that Childers has served for years.

Childers' district is far from the only one where the Democrats have failed to field strong candidates. In some cases, they didn't find anyone to run.

Not even Darryl Jones of Miami, scheduled to become Senate president if the Democrats win 21 of the 40 Senate seats, is optimistic. Currently, only 18 senators are Democrats.

"Our plan is to hold on to all our seats," Jones said last week. "Twenty-one would be fine, but I won't make a projection. . . . My advice to every candidate is run scared, no matter what."

Do the math and you can see why Senate Democrats are in trouble. In a chamber with 40 members, 11 incumbent Republicans and eight incumbent Democrats do not run this year and will remain in office. Of the 10 candidates who drew no opponent, six are Republicans and four are Democrats.

So the Senate has 17 absolutely safe Republican seats and 14 absolutely safe Democratic seats.

Three of the 10 contested seats are virtually certain to remain in Democratic hands, and four are more than likely to remain Republican.

That brings us to 16 Democrats and 20 Republicans, with four seats hanging in the balance, making it unlikely that Democrats could get a majority.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Jo Miglino said it has been hard to recruit candidates. People are leery of getting into public life because of the loss of privacy and the time they must spend away from families, she said.

The party has had a particularly tough time against Childers. Tim O'Brien, a Panama City radio station owner, suddenly dropped out of the race, leaving the Democrats scrambling.

They found Willie Farrow, a former Air Force sergeant and the son of an Alabama sharecropper, who has never run for public office. Farrow, 46, a travel agency owner, must fight for recognition in a district that runs across a strip of Panhandle counties where many voters feel closer to Alabama than Florida. It is a district that has never elected a black legislator; Farrow is African-American.

Childers insists he considers Farrow a serious threat and says he has heard the Democrats are prepared to spend a lot of money against him. "They'll probably bring in Teddy Kennedy to campaign against me," he quipped.

But in some districts around the state, Republicans have nothing to worry about and are able to spend money they have raised on behalf of party members who need it more.

The six incumbent, unopposed Republicans in the Senate are holding more than $800,000. Senate President Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale, has $74,597 to share. Sen. Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, the woman who will be president if Republicans retain control, had raised $407,771, virtually all unspent. Scott and Jennings are major players when it comes to helping Republican candidates in other races.

Sens. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Miami; John Grant, R-Tampa; Fred Dudley, R-Fort Myers; and Roberto Casas, R-Hialeah, are also unopposed. Among them they have another $400,000 in unspent campaign money for the cause.

The four unopposed Senate Democrats _ James T. Hargrett, Tampa; George Kirkpatrick, Gainesville; Ken Jenne, Fort Lauderdale; and Pat Thomas, Quincy, have less than $300,000 in unspent campaign money and little visibility beyond their districts.

Most of the money and attention will focus on the three hotly contested races _ the east Hillsborough County district now served by Sen. Malcolm Beard, R-Seffner; the district now served by Sen. Karen Johnson, D-Inverness; and the Space Coast district now served by Sen. Patsy Kurth, D-Malabar.

Both parties also expect to spend a lot of money in the Panhandle in a battle over the seat now held by the retiring Sen. Robert Harden, R-Fort Walton Beach. But the district is a Republican stronghold where any Democrat faces an uphill battle.

Johnson and Beard are not seeking re-election. Three Republicans and one Democrat have qualified for Beard's seat in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 47 percent to 43 percent. But it's a district where Republican Jeb Bush polled 56 percent of the vote in 1994.

Citrus County Sheriff Charlie Dean of Inverness is the Democrats' best hope to replace Johnson. But he is running against better-financed Republicans in a district where the Republicans outnumber Democrats. Citrus voters are the minority in the district.

Jones says the Republicans are shooting at Democrats they cannot possibly defeat, while he is targeting only races that are winnable.

"There is only one seat out there that they really have a shot at, and that's the Karen Johnson seat, where we have the best possible candidate: Sheriff Charlie Dean."

_ Times researcher Kati Schardl contributed to this report.