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Voters giving Hafner an easy ride to fifth term // DISTRICT 53

St. Petersburg Democrat Lars Hafner was bound for a fifth term in the State House after turning the District 53 race into a runaway.

With most precincts reporting late Tuesday, Hafner led Joseph Smith, his Republican opponent from Largo, by more than a 3-2 ratio.

But Smith refused to concede even then.

"No," he said. "It's not in my book. When the race is over, it'll be over."

Hafner said his campaign was based on issues and his own hard work, to which he said voters in his district respond most favorably.

Hafner, 35, said he hoped become chairman of the powerful Appropriations committee. That will depend on whether Democrats retain control of the state House, a race too close to call late Tuesday.

Hafner also plans to concentrate on what he identifies as his traditional issues: education and the concerns of senior citizens and children.

And he said he hopes to help fill a legislative leadership gap in St. Petersburg in the wake of former House Speaker Peter Wallace's departure.

"We'll see where we're placed, then we'll start focusing on things," he said.

It was the first political campaign for Smith, 45, thought to be Pinellas County's first black legislative candidate.

"I'm a first-time challenger. I made a mark. I made a dent. And I'm proud of that," he said.

Both parties viewed the race as crucial and sent heavyweights to fund-raisers early in the campaign. GOP leaders badly wanted a victory to help the Republicans wrest away control of the House for the first time this century. Democrats were determined to hold the seat.