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State congressional races tightening up

Just as the presidential race has tightened in Florida, so too have a number of state congressional races become hotly contested.

In the Lakeland area, Democrat Mike Stedem, a local car dealer, has been doing surprisingly well raising money to succeed retiring Rep. Charles Canady. Stedem released a poll last week that showed him trailing Republican Adam Putnam by only 2 points. But Republicans said Friday that their own poll shows Putnam leading by at least 10 points.

In the race to succeed GOP Rep. Bill McCollum in the Orlando area, two Republicans, Rep. Bill Sublette and Ric Keller, will have a runoff to decide who will face Democrat Linda Chapin. That gives Chapin an advantage because they will have to spend money fighting each other for another month and won't be able to campaign against her until after the Oct. 3 election.

Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, is facing a tough challenge from state Rep. Elaine Bloom. Some Republicans are growing worried about the race because Bloom has raised $1.6-million, about $100,000 more than Shaw.

But Rep. Tom Davis, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Friday that his party expects to win those races and "might even pick up a seat" _ the one held by Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville.

Missile defense apathy

When it comes to the nation's missile defense program, Lt. Col. Rick Lehner is the Pentagon's mouthpiece. On any given day, whether at the office or at home, Lehner says he fields as many as 20 telephone calls from reporters asking about missile defense.

But these news reports apparently are being ignored by the public.

While the issue of missile defense has strained U.S. relations with Moscow and Beijing, prompting fears of another nuclear arms race, many Americans are wondering: What's the big deal?

Lehner points to his own family and friends, as an example. When he talks to them about the missile defense program, he says, "They say, "We've had one for years. You're just trying to develop a more expensive one.' "

Indeed, according to national polls, the majority of Americans _ 73 percent by one count _ think the United States already has the capability to shoot down an incoming enemy missile.

For the record, it doesn't.

Nader "created' agency?

First, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore claimed he helped invent the Internet. Now Green Party nominee and citizen activist Ralph Nader says he is responsible for "creating" the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Nader made the claim during a brief, unannounced visit to Wednesday's Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford hearings on Capitol Hill. His appearance set off a small media stir, causing him to hold an impromptu news conference in the hallway outside the hearing room where he chastised President Clinton, Gore, the Republican Congress and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater for turning the NHTSA into the automotive industry's own personal "consulting firm."

"This is the agency I created, and look what they've done to it," said Nader, author of Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in-Dangers of the American Automobile.

Indeed, some experts give Nader a lot of credit for helping to create the agency.

But Brian O'Neil, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that while Nader was an "important catalyst" for the traffic safety movement, he did not singlehandedly create NHTSA. He said many other authors and activists were involved in the creation.

Officials at NHTSA refused to comment, except to say that technically the agency was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

_ Times staff writers Bill Adair, Paul de la Garza and John Balz contributed to this report.