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Democrats must first survive each other

(ran South, East editions)

Democratic candidates enjoy a decided advantage in seeking to replace Jim Davis this year in Congress. In Florida's U.S. House District 11, they outnumber Republican voters nearly 2-1.

But even if they capitalize on their edge, their sense of victory probably won't last long. Any Democrat is likely to face the disadvantage of being in the minority in Congress, with its lack of ability to set agendas, move legislation or win leadership posts.

Each of the candidates campaigning for the post say he or she is uniquely suited to achieve success in Washington, D.C., despite the challenge of being a freshman in the minority party.

It's time to start persuading voters.

With eight months to the November election, eight hopefuls have declared their candidacy, including five Democrats. Republicans aren't writing off the contest, with three tossing their names in recent months.

Since declaring their candidacies last year, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor and state Senate minority leader Les Miller have been considered the top Democratic contenders. They are the only candidates who currently hold office, and as such enjoy name-recognition the others can't buy.

Both also are in the minority on their respective political bodies. Castor is one of two Democrats on the commission; Miller's party holds only about a third of the seats in the Florida Senate.

Miller, 54, said the Legislature is similar in structure to Congress. With Florida at the center of public discussion on many national matters, from the Medicaid prescription drug benefit to public school testing, he says he is familiar with the issues.

"I feel like I've gained a lot of knowledge. I've been in leadership," Miller said. "I want to go there, on the national level, and utilize that."

Miller readily acknowledges his name has not been attached to much of the "sexy" legislation that attracts big headlines. But, he said, despite 14 years of working in the minority party, he has managed to get bills passed that help residents and neighborhoods in his district. He says his responsiveness to constituents who call his office is second to none.

Castor, 39, says, similarly, that the commission where she has served for nearly three years deals with issues that overlap the national debate. She says the county's indigent health care plan, a program that provides free primary medical care to the poor and that she has fought to protect, should be a model nationally.

Despite being outgunned on the commission, she says she has helped to win support of tighter ethics rules for the commission that would benefit Congress.

She has grown more vocal in opposition to the Republican majority on her board in recent months on such issues as the commission's ban on gay pride recognition. And she said she has stood up to powerful interests, leading residents in opposition to the installations of giant power poles in their neighborhood, fortitude she will need in Congress.

"It's never been more important to have independent voices in Congress, like mine, to take on the special interests," she said.

The other candidates chafe at the front-runner status assigned to Castor and Miller by political watchers. But both have a pronounced early edge, largely because of their names and the money-raising ability that comes with their titles and associations.

Castor's mother, Betty Castor, raised nearly $5-million during her unsuccessful U.S. Senate run in 2004, is a past Florida education commissioner and past president of the University of South Florida. Her father was a judge.

In addition to holding office since 1991, Miller is married to Gwen Miller, who has served on the Tampa City Council since 1995.

Bully for them, says Al Fox, who says he's content to fly under the radar as he continues shaking hands and meeting potential constituents.

Unlike the other candidates, Fox, 61, said his 40 years in Washington as a lobbyist, aide to former legislators and businessman, give him knowledge of the way things work there. Fox, who recently moved back to Tampa to run for office, said he singularly is in a position to achieve.

As a former chemical industry lobbyist, he said he is well-versed in the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, for instance.

"I know how those laws apply to the Hillsborough River, Tampa Bay and the Gulf," he said. "Maybe somewhere, someone has more experience and knowledge than I have."

While only two congressmen have held the District 11 seat over the past 44 years, Fox said he plans to run for only "a few" terms and believes he has the experience to make the most of them. Though perhaps best known locally for lobbying to open U.S. relations with Cuba, he said he will fight to improve veterans' benefits, protect the environment and bolster Social Security.

Lawyer Scott Farrell takes a decidedly different tack than the others in the field. His prior political experience includes an unsuccessful bid for state House in 2002.

He said he believes voters are looking for new candidates and new ideas.

Farrell, 38, acknowledges it will be tough for Democrats to have a great impact in Washington soon. He vows to try and has emphasized his desire to see the country reduce its dependence on foreign oil by purchasing a campaign recreational vehicle that runs on used kitchen grease.

But he said whoever wins should have a safe seat for years to come. So he intends to spend much of his time campaigning for other Democrats running for Congress so the party can win back a majority and set the nation on a better course.

"I can't promise progressive change unless I have the votes to make things happen," he said.

Michael Steinberg, another lawyer who rounds out the Democratic choices so far, emphasizes his experience with issues that affect many Americans: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and veterans benefits. His law practice is focused on people trying to use the programs.

In his years in law, Steinberg, 47, has seen both fraud that robs billions of dollars from people who really need it and bureaucracy that effectively does the same thing. He feels he has the know-how to make those programs more fiscally sound and serve citizens better.

He believes those aims are nonpartisan and would appeal to politicians of every stripe.

"Either I'm going to be a congressman who introduces bills, or I'm going to impress on everyone else who is running how important this is," Steinberg said. "And hopefully some of it will be absorbed."

Republicans in the race have a steep uphill climb in District 11, which also takes in much of south, central and west Tampa, part of Manatee County, including some of Bradenton, and a sliver of southern Pinellas County near Gulfport.

Would-be Sen. Betty Castor and presidential candidate John Kerry, both Democrats, handily beat their opponents in 2004 by double digit margins in District 11 on their way to losing overall campaigns in Florida.

Mike Massaro knows the odds are stacked against him.

"Every conversation I've had, it's, "We don't want to discourage you, but...' " Massaro said. "The Republicans in this district, it's almost like Pavlov's dogs. They've been trained to say it's not winnable."

He wants to prove them wrong.

A former reservist who served in Desert Storm, Massaro, 41, said he got in the race out of concern that Democrats are talking about pulling out of Iraq. He thinks that would be a bad idea before order is restored in the country.

Massaro, a mortgage broker and former teacher, said he brings knowledge of business and education to the task as well.

Eddie Adams Jr. of Temple Terrace has a similarly varied background. He worked for nearly 25 years at Tampa General Hospital as cardiopulmonary technologist and is now an architect. So he said he has knowledge of two areas of importance to Floridians: health care and growth.

Adams, 52, ran unsuccessfully for its city council two years ago, coming in fifth place. He said he hopes voters will realize the value of pairing him with fellow Republicans Adam Putnam and Gus Bilirakis, who is seeking to replace his father in the District 9 seat.

"The three of us could go to Congress and create a west Central Florida team," Adams said. "The three of us would be able to collaborate and do some good things for this part of the state."

Attempts to reach the third Republican in the race, Jim Greenwald of Gulfport, the only Pinellas candidate in the race, were not successful last week.