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Crash adds to political mess

Even for Florida's much-scrutinized elections machinery, it's been quite a week.

First, the state miscalculated the filing fee for legislative candidates. That triggered an 11th-hour scramble by candidates to send an extra $40.23 to elections officials in Tallahassee with two days' notice.

Friday, a FedEx 727 cargo jet crashed in Tallahassee hours before the noon deadline to qualify to appear on the ballot. Three crew members escaped with minor injuries, but campaign forms and checks for filing fees went up in smoke. The airport shut down.

Then it looked like the noon deadline would be extended at the urging of Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was a stickler for deadlines during the 2000 election.

Then the deadline wasn't extended. Then it was.

It's enough to put Florida back in the late-night talk show jokes.

"Only in Florida," said Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville.

During Friday's confusion, some candidates chartered private planes and made the deadline with minutes to spare. Some drove frantically northward to the capital.

By midafternoon, Gov. Jeb Bush declared "a state of emergency exists due to a minor disaster." He extended the qualifying deadline for some candidates to 5 p.m. today _ as long as they have receipts showing their papers were delayed by the plane crash. Or copies of plane tickets for flights that were canceled Friday morning because the Tallahassee airport was closed.

It's unclear how many candidates will benefit from the deadline extension. That left a bit of uncertainty on a day when qualifying traditionally provides clarity to the fall lineup.

Florida Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher appears to have been elected to the new powerful Cabinet position of chief financial officer _ he thinks. No one else was qualified for the race Friday, but Gallagher wasn't about to declare victory.

"With the qualifying deadline extended, I would never presume to be the only candidate for this important position," he said in a statement.

Friday produced a couple of surprises.

Bush, the incumbent Republican, and prominent Democratic challengers Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general; Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer; and Daryl Jones, a Miami state senator qualified for governor earlier in the week. But a Tallahassee woman dressed as Mickey Mouse's evil brother, "Mickee Faust," signed up as a write-in candidate Friday in the governor's race.

The race for state agriculture commissioner also became more interesting.

Mary Barley, a wealthy environmentalist who battled sugar growers and backed a constitutional amendment to help clean up the Everglades, abruptly switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to oppose incumbent Republican Charles Bronson, a Bush appointee.

Barley almost didn't qualify. Her campaign staffer chartered a private jet and flew it to an airstrip in the countryside 8 miles outside Tallahassee. They raced to file the paperwork moments before noon.

Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade said some Republicans regard Barley as "our worst nightmare _ a rich woman environmentalist and consumer affairs person." He said Barley could be a formidable opponent, especially if she winds up with significant financial help from Paul Tudor Jones, a New York commodities trader and Everglades crusader.

In the race for attorney general, four Democrats and three Republicans are in a crowded field. The Democrats who qualified are state Sen. Buddy Dyer of Orlando, Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox, and former deputy attorneys general Walter Dartland and George Sheldon. The Republicans in the race are state Sen. Locke Burt of Ormond Beach, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist and Solicitor General Tom Warner.

Candidates who couldn't hire a private plane got to Tallahassee any way they could.

Hillsborough County candidate Allison McInnis-Gimbert, a Democrat, had a wild ride. She thought she had arranged to qualify in the District 16 state Senate race against Republican Jim Sebesta.

She sent her qualifying papers Thursday by FedEx to Anna Cruz, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. She also planned to catch the 8 a.m. flight from Tampa to Tallahassee on US Airways to deliver the papers in person, if necessary.

Her package went down in the FedEx crash in Tallahassee. Her flight was canceled.

"When somebody told me about the plane crash, I just about fell out," McInnis-Gimbert said.

So she got in her car around 8:30 a.m. and "hauled tail." She arrived in a parking lot outside the Capitol _ at 12:02 p.m. She was in line at the elections office four minutes later when she learned it was too late.

She hung around in Tallahassee hoping for help. She got it when Bush extended the deadline until today for candidates in her predicament.

The Florida Democratic Party attacked Secretary of State Harris for being out of the office during most of qualifying week.

For days, her office would not say where she was. A partial schedule of her week was finally released Friday.

While her elections office coped with difficulties such as charging candidates an incorrect filing fee, Harris helped announce a new Wal-Mart distribution center in DeSoto County, greeted the Korean ambassador in Orlando; attended international trade meetings in Washington; spoke at an international conference in Orlando; and attended a fundraiser for her congressional campaign at the Washington offices of the Holland & Knight law firm.

"She was AWOL. She was MIA," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill.

Harris spokesman David Host said the secretary of state intended to be back in her office on Friday, deadline day, and she was.

_ Times staff writers Adam Smith and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

Who's running for what

Here are the candidates who qualified as of noon Friday to appear on the ballot for statewide office:

GOVERNOR

Jeb Bush, R (i)

Daryl L. Jones, D

Bill McBride, D

Janet Reno, D

Robert Kunst, no party

COMMISSIONER OF AGRICULTURE

Charles H. Bronson, R (i)

Mary L. Barley, D

"Dr. Andy' Michaud, D

David Nelson, D

ATTORNEY GENERAL

Locke Burt, R

Charlie Crist, R

Tom Warner, R

Walt Dartland, D

Buddy Dyer, D

Scott Maddox, D

George Sheldon, D

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER

Tom Gallagher, R+

(i) incumbent

+apparently elected without opposition

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