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Post likely to stay in GOP column // STATE SENATE DISTRICT 23

Tuesday night's returns in state Senate District 23 shaped up just as retiring Sen. Malcolm Beard hoped they would, with fellow Republican Tom Lee taking a big, though early, lead in the contest to succeed him.

Lee, a Brandon home builder and first-time candidate, built a 3-to-2 lead over Democrat John Dicks in both eastern Hillsborough and Polk counties.

Lee, 34, picked up Beard's endorsement and relied on "a lot of straight talk" to wage a tough-on-crime, anti-tax, pro-growth campaign.

"I'm pretty tired, but we're kind of excited; we're seeing some results that are very encouraging," Lee said. "It's still early, though."

Dicks, 43, campaigned on a platform of cutting the high school dropout rate by raising the age at which students can quit school from 16 to 18 and creating alternative school environments for unruly students.

Although the race started quietly, the last week of the campaign turned into a slip-and-slide mud derby of negative campaigning.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent $118,600 on a television spot that accused Dicks, a Plant City financial adviser, of being the subject of "securities investigations."

Later, the Florida Democratic Party mailed a pamphlet criticizing Lee's business philosophy and record.

Both candidates say the ads went too far, and Lee went so far as to ask for the GOP ad to be pulled from television.

Although Lee said he heard from several voters Tuesday that "they were really impressed with my effort to get the ad pulled," he did not think the negative ads were decisive.

"I didn't hear much about it whatsoever," he said. "I didn't think any of that stuff would do anything but hurt a candidate."