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Once, Rice called his successor his "heir apparent." Now they may battle for the office.

Former longtime Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice was once quoted as calling his chief deputy, Jim Coats, his "heir apparent."

Running for his first term as sheriff after Rice left the office in 2004, Coats called Rice his mentor.

Now, the two may be running against each other when the office comes up for election in 2012. On Thursday Rice, a lawyer, announced he intends to run for sheriff again next year.

"I spent a lot of years at the Sheriff's Office and I still have a few years left and if that job is coming open, I'm the best qualified," Rice said.

Rice, 66, said his decision was also influenced by comments Coats made recently.

In March, Coats said if he won re-election in 2012, he could serve two years, resign, then ask the governor to appoint his chief deputy, Robert Gualtieri, to finish the final two years of the term.

"I was surprised Jim would say that," Rice said. "The Sheriff's Office belongs to the people, doesn't belong to the sheriff to anoint other people to sheriff."

But Coats, 67, said Thursday his statements in March were "What ifs?" Coats said he was talking about what would happen if he got ill at some point during his next term or if a family situation required his attention.

Coats, who won a successful bid for re-election in 2008, said Thursday he has not yet decided if he'll run in 2012 but expects to finalize a decision within the next week or so.

Rice and Coats both said they had not spoken to each other about their plans for 2012. Rice said he had been trying to meet with Coats for weeks, but Coats told him he was busy in Tallahassee.

But Rice also acknowledged that Coats called him earlier this week and he had not yet gotten back to him.

Coats, on the other hand, said he saw Rice Monday night at a meeting of local Republican leaders and that Rice did not broach the subject.

Rice said the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has undergone changes since he left six years ago and he knows the department faces serious revenue issues.

"I haven't laid out a platform, so I'm not ready to discuss the key issues," Rice said. "The bottom line is that I've been there and done it and I'm a proven entity."

Coats pointed to various accomplishments during his tenure, including the difficult task of making massive budget cuts without sacrificing service.

"I think I've demonstrated I'm a proven leader and I've been able to deal with the budget reductions and still provide a high level of responsible law enforcement service to our citizens," Coats said.

In his 16-year reign as Pinellas County sheriff, Rice was widely credited for cleaning up the department and making it more professional. With an extensive background in law and law enforcement, Rice first ran for sheriff in 1988. He won the election by a 2-to-1 margin and was re-elected in 1992, 1996 and 2000.

After leaving the agency in 2004, Rice spent two years as a state representative for District 54. Rice has a law degree from Stetson University College of Law and works for Barry Cohen's law firm, Cohen, Foster & Romine, as an attorney and investigator.

Coats has been with the Sheriff's Office for 40 years and has worked at all command levels. He was tapped by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to lead two troubled sheriff's offices in other counties in the 1990s and also served as interim police chief in Indian Rocks Beach.

Coats has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Saint Leo College and an associate's degree in business administration from St. Petersburg College.

Coats said he was surprised by Rice's announcement, but that it would not affect whether he decides to run or not.

"If he thinks I'm not qualified, or he's more qualified - he endorsed me. He's the one who asked me to run for sheriff," Coats said.