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Laurent posts big lead early in race // DISTRICT 66

Facing his first opponent since being elected to the state House District 66 seat in 1990, Republican John Laurent pulled to an early and convincing lead Tuesday over Democratic challenger Arturo Perez.

"It would really have to take something disastrous with the ballot returns for it to turn at this point," Laurent said from John's Restaurant in Bartow, where he spent the evening with friends.

By 9:30 p.m., he said, his victory party already had started to go home.

"There's not a lot of suspense right now," he said. Still, Laurent added, "When you have an opponent, you have to take any race seriously and run a full campaign. That's what we did."

But Perez said he wouldn't give up until more ballots were counted. He said he hoped late returns from precincts in the Winter Haven area, where he lives and works, would help.

"I'm pretty behind, no doubt about it," Perez said with about one-third of the precinct results in. "Let's face it, I'm trying to make some changes in health care . . . but I realize that if people don't find this an interesting issue, then let them pay for it."

Laurent, a 50-year-old lawyer, and Perez, a 66-year-old doctor, campaigned largely on different issues.

Laurent said voters in west central Florida were most concerned with local water wars. Perez focused on creating a health insurance program for all Floridians.

However the election turned out, Perez said, he didn't regret running.

"I've been in this race because of the issues," he said, "and I'm trying to make changes for people."

House District 66 stretches from the Kissimmee River to Tampa Bay. It crosses from Polk County into eastern Hillsborough, including Ruskin, Apollo Beach and parts of Sun City, Brandon and Wimauma.