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Parties picking their battles

It's an election year, but voters hoping to throw the rascals out of the Legislature might be disappointed.

Competitive elections for the House and Senate are increasingly rare because of term limits, partisan redistricting and fundraising power.

Even after a session in which lawmakers increased phone rates, raised college tuition and delayed an Everglades cleanup, voters likely will be able to count on one hand the number of legislative races with clear-cut choices.

It's no accident. Most seats are safely Republican or Democratic, and most incumbents can raise far more money than their challengers.

"Reapportionment is a big factor, the way the Legislature manipulates districts to protect incumbents," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause, a watchdog group that wants the next redistricting map drawn by citizens, not legislators.

When Democrats were in charge, they manipulated district lines to favor themselves. In 1992, an alliance between blacks and Republicans resulted in many black voters concentrated in minority districts. Black representation increased, and other districts shifted to the GOP in subsequent elections.

Republicans gained control of the House in 1996 and never looked back. Using computer technology that provided block-level demographic information, they tweaked the lines in 2002 to pad the majority. Republicans now control 81 seats in the 120-member House and 26 seats in the 40-member Senate, even though Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Florida.

Two years ago, about a third of House members faced real opposition. Two dozen of them won unopposed _ their names did not even appear on a ballot _ and 49 others faced resistance only from minor-party candidates.

It could happen again.

Any challenger taking on an incumbent is taking on an array of moneyed interests that give most of their money to the people in power.

With only a fraction of the money of their opponents, Democrats plan to channel limited resources to a few areas where they have the best chances.

"I'm not going into 17 races with a slingshot," said state Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who is overseeing House campaigns. "I'm going into a few fights with a shotgun."

Smith won't declare which Republicans will face the most trouble.

But he said a possible target is in the Tampa Bay area: First-term Rep. Ed Homan, an orthopedic surgeon who beat Democrat Sara Romeo in 2002 in House District 60 in northern Hillsborough County.

The district remains a battleground because it's one of the few in Florida where the two parties are virtually even in voter registration.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1,970 voters in the district, which includes North Tampa, Tampa Palms, Temple Terrace, Lutz and Thonotosassa. GOP leaders retooled the district two years ago, making it slightly more Republican.

For 2004, Democrats recruited Karen Perez, a clinical therapist and community activist, who ended her bid for a School Board seat to challenge Homan instead.

Through Dec. 31, she raised $895. Homan has raised more than $75,000, and House leaders will make sure he has all the money he needs.

"A Democrat held the seat before," Homan said. "It makes sense they would try to recapture it."

Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, who is in line to become speaker in the fall, has spent months raising money to fend off the few Democratic challenges. The GOP might have up to $9-million to spend for House races, many times more than the Democrats.

"I realize the D's are going after some of our seats," Bense said. "I'm working my rear end off to help them raise money and serve their districts and be visible."

An emerging battle over a House seat in central Florida, prized by Republicans and targeted by Democrats, illustrates the stakes.

The Republicans' No. 1 priority in the Legislature is in the suburbs south of Orlando, where Rep. John Quinones in 2002 became the first Puerto Rican Republican elected to the Legislature.

With both parties working hard to lay claim to a growing number of Puerto Rican voters, the soft-spoken lawyer became an overnight star in GOP circles and a symbol of the Republicans' determination to strengthen its Hispanic base.

Quinones holds the honorary title of chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign in Florida. He also is a likely Democratic target.

Quinones, or "John Q." as he is known, represents House District 49, an area smack in the middle of the Interstate 4 corridor where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans and where Al Gore got 59 percent of the vote against George W. Bush in 2000.

Such numbers have Democrats convinced that they can capture the seat in 2004.

Smith said Democrats made a mistake in 2002 by offering a Nicaraguan candidate in the district.

"Puerto Ricans crossed party lines to vote nationality, which is perfectly understandable," he said.

Although Quinones was outspent in 2002, he knocked on thousands of doors and beat Democrat Jose Fernandez, 54 percent to 46 percent.

In a sign of how much muscle the Republicans can flex in 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush already is aggressively helping Quinones defend his turf by tying the freshman lawmaker's fortunes to those of his brother, the president.

Bush sent a fundraising letter to Republican donors, warning them of the Democrats' desire to seize Quinones' seat.

"There is more at stake here than his election," Bush wrote, referring to Quinones. "My brother President George W. Bush's re-election is equally at stake! By targeting John Q. for defeat, the Democrats ultimately are targeting our President for defeat."

The Democrats' strategy is to use two dozen votes from the 2003 session, on education, health care and other issues, to portray certain Republicans, including Quinones and Homan, as extremists out of touch with their moderate constituents.

Both incumbents said it won't work.

Quinones said he voted against the phone-rate increase and changes to workers' compensation laws. And he plans to knock on thousands of doors again.

"I believe they will vote for the candidate, not the party," Quinones said of his constituents.

House Democrats' objective is to gain two seats for a total of 41. Even that modest goal won't be easy.

Smith conceded that the two seats held by Democrats Reps. Suzanne Kosmas of New Smyrna Beach and Doug Wiles of St. Augustine easily could shift to the Republican column. Both won in Republican-leaning districts.

"We're so marginalized," Smith said. "I don't want to score a touchdown. I just want to stop the bleeding."

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