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DEMOCRAT OPTIMISTIC ABOUT RACE FOR SHERIFF

The other guy has ideas. Plans. Concepts.

Sitting in the conference room of his Clearwater law office, he lays out a vision and a philosophy of how the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office would look under his command.

Now all he needs is an audience.

Scott Swope is the other guy in the sheriff's race. Not the incumbent. Not the four-term predecessor. Not the conspiracy theorist.

Swope is the guy trying to convince an electorate in love with familiar faces and names that change can be good. That two decades' worth of succession plans is enough. That the race for sheriff does not begin and end with the Republican primary between Bob Gualtieri and Everett Rice.

"I understand the focus is going to be on Rice and Gualtieri,'' said Swope, the only Democrat in the field. "They're the ones in the primary, they're the ones raising the most money, they're the ones with the greater name recognition.

"But I don't think the odds are as long for me as they were when I first started.''

Why is that?

Some of it is grass roots work. Some of it is Swope getting his message out at more than a half-dozen debates and forums.

But most of it is an increasingly nasty battle between Rice and Gualtieri, with each essentially accusing the other of being unfit for the job.

"They're basically hammering each other,'' said Swope, who became a lawyer in 1997 after six years as a Pinellas deputy. "It's like I'm sitting on the sidelines watching them go at it, and waiting to see who wins.

"Do I have a little smile on my face while I'm watching? Yes, you could say that.''

The idea, from Swope's standpoint, is that whoever wins the primary will have some scars. And with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Pinellas County, some of the name recognition issue will be negated.

It's a fine theory, but here's the reality:

The last Democrat elected sheriff in Pinellas County was riding Jimmy Carter's coattails. The last time a Democrat came closer than 20 percentage points of being elected sheriff was 32 years ago.

Democrats have been such nonentities in the sheriff's race that there have been elections (1992 and 2000) when the party didn't even bother to run. In other years (1984 and 2004) the Democratic candidate didn't even get 30 percent of the vote.

Perhaps that explains why Democratic leadership has not seemed eager to devote too much money or energy on the race.

"The Democratic Party has a limited amount of resources, and hard decisions have to be made as to where the money is going to go,'' Swope said. "However, I'm confident the party will provide financial assistance once we get past the Republican primary.''

In the end, Swope will still have to connect with voters.

To do that, he is pushing the idea of a more focused Sheriff's Office. Wasting less time on nonviolent misdemeanors and keeping deputies on the street for public safety issues.

"What I want is for people to learn as much as they can about the candidates, whether it's for sheriff or legislative offices or anything else,'' Swope said. "Make an informed decision based on what the candidate has to offer and what he will do.''

As opposed to name recognition?

"Exactly.''

- jromano@tampabay.com

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