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CITRUS SHERIFF // Polak earns spot on November ballot by 400 votes

When Chris Polak walked into the elections office Tuesday night, he tapped Henry "Hootie" Wilkins on the shoulder and shook his hand.

"Hey, buddy," said Wilkins, an 11-year veteran of the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. "It looks like you're going to take this."

Polak did take the race _ by 400 votes.

In the Republican runoff for Citrus County sheriff, Polak grabbed 4,060 votes, or nearly 53 percent. Wilkins fell slightly short with 3,660, or about 47 percent. The race was tight through the night, as it was in September when both men took 23 percent in a five-way race.

Now that voters have narrowed the field of candidates to two, they will choose between an outsider and an insider. In November, Polak, the county's director of courts, will take on Democrat Jeff Dawsy, the captain of the emergency operations center.

They are vying to replace longtime Democratic Sheriff Charles Dean, who will face Republican Anna Cowin in a state Senate race. The sheriff serves a four-year term and earns $83,128 annually.

Dawsy took the September primary handily, garnering 60 percent of the vote. Polak knows he has an uphill battle ahead, as he changes his strategy to attract both the county's Democrats and members of his party.

"I think we've got a lot of work to do," Polak said Tuesday night. "We've got a short month. It's got to be a lot more focused."

Polak, 39, has been the director of courts since 1992. He spent six years as a Marion County sheriff's deputy and several years as an investigator with the state attorney's office.

At the center of Polak's campaign was reducing crime and the fear of crime by putting more deputies on the street through community policing. He promises to create a traffic unit, put more resources into schools and step up drug enforcement.

Even getting to the elections office was difficult for Polak, who spent much of the evening changing a flat tire while his opponent counted returns.

"Every step of the way this has been a cliffhanger," Polak said. "Now we've got just one more step to climb."

Law enforcement is Wilkins' first love, but he said he will return to financial advising full time, in part to recoup campaign expenses. After eight months of campaigning, Wilkins said he will take a few weeks off _ once he takes down his signs.

He said he will be true to his party and support Polak.