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Senate clout is a boon to Saunders

How does an underdog and little-known statewide candidate drum up a crowd when he's campaigning outside his home turf? When he's in charge of crafting the state Senate's health care budget, he schedules an appearance at a hospital that could be profoundly affected by his work in Tallahassee.

State Sen. Burt Saunders, a Republican candidate for attorney general, attracted at least 40 health care administrators and staffers for a speech at All Children's Hospital Monday.

The chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee told hospital administrators and staffers that he's wary of expanding managed care too fast into Florida's Medicaid programs. He said Florida needs to spend more money to discourage teen smoking and clamp down on illegal prescription drug use. And he would aggressively target illegal border crossings into Florida.

"I'm thoroughly excited about the opportunity to campaign for and hopefully be elected attorney general," said Saunders, 57, a Naples lawyer and 12-year legislator. "I'm hoping that I'll have your support as I go through the campaign."

The Republican contest to succeed Charlie Crist as attorney general also includes former U.S. Senate candidate Bill McCollum; state Rep. Everett Rice of Treasure Island; and state Rep. Joe Negron of Stuart. Formally kicking off his campaign with stops across the state, Saunders made it clear he's in the race to stay, despite McCollum's strong name recognition after two statewide campaigns and Negron's having raised more than $1-million.

"Joe has been very effective raising money, using his position as chair of appropriations. I believe his ability to raise money has come to an end now as the session begins," said Saunders. He said McCollum's name recognition should be no surprise after he lost two statewide campaigns and that former Pinellas Sheriff Rice, after one year as a legislator, is not a viable statewide candidate.

His record as a strong environmentalist and advocate for veterans and improved health care, Saunders said, will set him apart.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sppimes.com.

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