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Byrd's campaign absences fuel speculation

Eight U.S. Senate candidates met in a campaign forum Tuesday, but the buzz was about the one who wasn't there: House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City.

It marked the third time in two weeks that Byrd skipped a forum at which the other Republican candidates took part. That fueled talk of Byrd leaving the race, but he denied that and said his top priority is running the House.

"There'll be plenty of time for forums," Byrd told reporters. "My job right now is to be speaker. We'll have four months of forums ad nauseam."

Byrd also has closed a Tallahassee campaign office and consolidated his operation in Plant City.

There's also been talk of Byrd switching to run for the U.S. House seat held by Republican Mike Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs, who has said he plans to seek re-election. The chance of that happening, Byrd said, is "none."

Byrd has been raising campaign money at an impressive pace: $1.6-million in less than six months, with $1.3-million reported on hand.

At this stage, candidates are spending most of their time raising money for summertime TV ads that could prove decisive.

Early polls have placed Byrd in the low single digits, well behind GOP rivals Bill McCollum and Mel Martinez. The crowded field also includes Miami lawyer Larry Klayman, former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith of Sarasota and state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, all of whom took part in Tuesday's forum, organized by the Associated Press.

Two weeks ago, Byrd skipped a forum at Lake Buena Vista, sponsored by the Florida Association of Realtors. He attended the group's dinner the next night.

Last weekend, Byrd did not take part in a Republican Party-sponsored candidates forum in Orlando, but spoke separately in his role as speaker.

On Thursday, Byrd appeared before the candidates forum, offering a preview of the legislative session that starts March 2.

Byrd's absence was odd, said Jeff Garcia, campaign manager for Democratic Senate candidate Betty Castor. "A forum like today's was an important one to be at, and the proof of that is that everyone was there. Busy people with busy schedules took time to attend. This has happened a few times now."

Byrd appears to be treading carefully to avoid any criticism that he is focusing more on campaigning for the Senate than finishing out his term as speaker.

The legislative session ends April 30. The Senate primary is Aug. 31.

While the candidate forum was under way, Byrd was in Plant City, taking part in a conference call to discuss plans for a one-day House "economic summit" next month.

Byrd is not the only Senate candidate who has been rumored to be quitting the race. Similar talk has followed Webster, who also is not well-known statewide and has not raised much money. Webster, who is seeking to become the first statewide candidate to get on the ballot by collecting signatures from nearly 100,000 voters, said he's in the race to stay.

"I'll have to be a very good planner," Byrd said of the difficulty of balancing his House duties with campaigning. "The good thing is, I have an opportunity to do something, instead of talking about it."

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