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Replacing Joseph Puglia, who dropped out, the lawyer will challenge Robert Schenck.

Prominent Spring Hill attorney Jason Melton announced his candidacy for the state Legislature Thursday, replacing Joseph Puglia on the Democratic ticket.

Puglia, a local business owner and first-time candidate, withdrew from the race for House District 44 last week after his wife's health seriously deteriorated.

His name will still appear on the ballot, which was already printed, but a vote for Puglia is now a vote for Melton.

The switch gives Melton, 34, a former prosecutor now in private practice, the difficult task of building a campaign from scratch less than 40 days from Nov. 4. Not to mention, some absentee ballots are already in voters' hands. Those that receive them in coming days will get a notice of this switch along with the ballot, said Annie D. Williams, Hernando County's supervisor of elections.

"I think it will be a challenge for some voters who haven't necessarily read every story," Melton said from Tallahassee, where he traveled to file his formal election papers.

"But ultimately ... it doesn't change the message and doesn't change the campaign. It's not about me, it's about the issues."

Melton, who is the former president of the Hernando County Bar Association, faces Republican Robert Schenck, a first-term incumbent who narrowly won the seat in 2006, and Sarah Roman, a little known Green Party candidate. The district covers most of Hernando County and parts of Pasco County.

Melton considered entering the race as the Democratic candidate earlier this year but decided against it when Puglia came forward. Now he feels it's necessary from someone to step up.

"In the last five months, this district has changed a lot," he explained. "The economic vulnerabilities have been exposed even more now."

Like Puglia, Melton said the top issue is the economy and adding jobs in Hernando. He attributed the county's 9 percent unemployment rate, the seventh highest in the state, to one-dimensional focus on the building industry and the need for better education to create a more skilled work force.

"Nobody's out there fighting for us," he said.

He also said he wants to tap into the anti-incumbent sentiment among voters. "Much of my support comes from the fact that voters are upset with the status quo," he said.

Schenck said Melton's entry to the race won't change his approach. "We continue to campaign as though we always were," he said.

John Frank can be reached at or (352) 754-6114.