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Senate post stays in GOP column // STATE SENATE DISTRICT 23

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

Lee, a Brandon home builder and first-time candidate, built more than 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," he said.

Dicks, 43, campaigned on a platform of cutting Florida's school dropout rate by raising the age at which students can quit school from 16 to 18.

Although the race started quietly, ads run by third parties during the last week of the campaign turned the contest into a slip-and-slide mud derby of negative campaigning.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent $118,600 on a television spot trying to tie Dicks, a Plant City financial adviser, to controversial investment guru Charles Givens.

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

Both candidates say the ads went too far, and Lee asked for the GOP ad to be pulled from television. While Lee did not think the ads made a difference, Dicks thought they were decisive.

"We're obviously disappointed," Dicks said. "I think that the slew of the negative stuff that came out from the National Republican Senatorial Committee had a devastating effect.

"People are really getting tired of negative campaigning," he said, "but it seems to be effective."