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GOP's Stabins leading, but not decisively // STATE HOUSE DISTRICT 44

Republican Jeff Stabins held a considerable, though hardly commanding, lead Tuesday night in the state House District 44 race over Democrat Joan Smith.

"We expected a fingernail-biting, evening and we're getting it," said Stabins, who defeated Smith by nearly a 2-1 ratio two years ago.

Smith won Sumter County and was leading in Polk; Stabins won Pasco and was ahead in Lake. In Hernando County, home of about two-thirds of the district's voters, Stabins was leading. But just more than half of the precincts had been counted as of 11 p.m.

"I'm behind, but (the count) is not completed," Smith said.

The campaign was dominated by Stabins' arrest in April on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol and mudslinging in the final days of the race.

Stabins, 36, a two-term incumbent, later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of reckless driving. Smith, 55, hammered him on the drinking issue in brochures prepared and paid for by the Florida Democratic Party.

Other brochures accused him, among other things, of being in the pocket of special interests and for taking a trip to San Diego at the expense of taxpayers.

Stabins mailed a flier _ paid for by the state Republican Party _ that all but accused Smith of stealing $10,000 from bingo games she used to operate in Masaryktown. He also said Smith, who has never held elected office, was too inexperienced for the job.

Both candidates accused the other of lying.

The squabbling overshadowed the issues in the race. Both candidates said that protecting the county's water resources was a priority. Stabins ran mostly on his record as a legislator more effective moving legislation than creating it. Smith said she was an environmentalist who would represent people rather than big businesses.

In fact, Stabins said last week that the election was about personalities, not issues.

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