It was a race to the finish _ at least for the Republican candidates for Citrus County sheriff.
The five Republicans held their collective breath Tuesday night as each precinct slightly shifted the vote tallies. Final returns put two men at 23 percent each: 11-year sheriff's veteran Henry "Hootie" Wilkins and Chris Polak, who since 1992 has been director of courts.
Wilkins and Polak will face each other in an October runoff.
"Whether we're one or two, I feel like we're going to the runoff," Wilkins said from his home, where he waited near the phone as supporters called in returns from the supervisor of elections office.
The other candidates were Howard Arnold, Frank Carter and D. F. "Tommy" Williams.
On the Democratic side, voters were more decisive, sending sheriff's Capt. Jeff Dawsy straight to the November general election.
Dawsy, with just more than 60 percent, handily outpaced Sgt. Larry Skidmore and former county Fire Marshal William "Mike" Connell.
"I'm extremely happy and overwhelmed by the response I've gotten from the citizens," Dawsy said.
Several of the candidates whose campaigns ended Tuesday said the low turnout made the race more difficult to predict through the night.
"The numbers are telling me people want things the way they are," Carter said.
The battle for the county's top cop has been among the hardest fought, with 10 men, then eight, vying to replace longtime Sheriff Charles Dean, who started in 1980. The sheriff serves four years and earns an annual salary of $83,128.
The candidate platforms began to blend, with most dedicated to studying marine and air units, supporting programs that help youths and save money and putting more deputies on the streets through community policing.
Wilkins, 38, says the sheriff should be the moral barometer of the county. He wants to put school resource officers in primary schools and offer more programs to steer young people from crime.
Polak, 39, wants to increase civic involvement in fighting crime, particularly juvenile and drug-related incidents.
Dawsy, the captain of the emergency operations center, says children are his priority. In addition to increasing community involvement in crime prevention, Dawsy, 40, would create an office of professional standards and a citizens academy.