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BALLOT REQUESTS SHOW A TIGHTENING RACE

Mail voting began last week in Florida's gubernatorial race, and the earliest indicators look good for Democrat Charlie Crist.

In the 2010 governor's race, at this point Republicans had requested 12 percent more absentee, mail-in ballots than Democrats. Today, that GOP advantage in requested ballots is just 3 percentage points, and the Crist campaign contends that the growth in Democratic mail ballot requests comes from voters who typically do not vote in nonpresidential election years.

We don't know for whom those ballots will be cast or how many will ultimately be returned, of course, but it's clearly a good sign for Florida Democrats. And it's not the only one.

Polls show a neck-and-neck race but, significantly, for the first time in two months Crist leads Gov. Rick Scott in the average of recent public polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com, albeit by a mere 1.4 percentage points.

The bottom line is that as voting begins, Crist is still standing after more than $40 million in mostly negative ads by the Scott campaign and the GOP - something that never looked like a sure thing. Scott's financial advantage diminishes in the final month of the campaign, debates could make a difference, and, unlike Democrat Alex Sink four years ago, Crist is actually funding a get-out-the-vote operation.

The race is a coin toss, but Democrats have more reason for optimism than they did a few weeks ago, and Republicans have less.

Crist adviser Steve Schale made a persuasive case in a memo last week that the contest has moved in Crist's direction.

"Gov. Scott started the year receiving an average of 42 percent of the vote in the public polling. After nine months and $41 million on television, he is still receiving 42 percent in the public polling. He is an incumbent stuck," Schale wrote. "What we have is a dog fight, with an incumbent governor who is stuck in the polls after out-spending his opponent 2:1, the same governor who won in 2010 in perfect storm conditions that do not apply to this year."

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Bondi, Sheldon debate

Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, Democratic George Sheldon and Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer will face off Monday for their only televised debate.

It will air on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m. Monday and again Saturday at 7 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 11:30 a.m. It will be moderated by Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith, Bay News 9 anchor Al Ruechel and News 13 anchor Ybeth Bruzual.

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Quote of the week

"Yes, I think he wants to be president. I think he'd be a great president. He understands what it's like to be president, for not only the person running or serving, plus family. He's seen his dad. He's seen his brother. And so he's a very thoughtful man and he's weighing his options. ... I, of course, was pushing him to run for president. He, of course, was saying 'I haven't made up my mind.' And I truly don't think he has. But - and plus, I don't think he liked it that his older brother was pushing him."

George W. Bush, speaking to Fox News about brother Jeb Bush's interest in running for president in 2016.

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Graham cool on Rubio

Another leading presidential contender from Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio, did not exactly earn a ringing endorsement last week from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

"He's a good guy, but after doing immigration with him - we don't need another young guy not quite ready," Graham told the Weekly Standard. "He's no Obama by any means, but he's so afraid of the right, and I've let that go."

Graham and Rubio were members of the immigration reform effort Gang of Eight. Rubio has tried to pivot away from that subject (the right that Graham alludes to left a mark) by diving into proposals that would help the middle class and emerging as a prominent voice on American involvement overseas.

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NextGen jabs Scott

NextGen Climate, the political committee founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer to target climate change skeptics, has already spent $7.1 million to help unseat Gov. Scott. Now we're told the committee, with 21 offices and more than 500 staffers, canvassers and volunteers, has just ponied up another $5 million to the Florida effort.

"We've committed to doing what it takes to get the job done," said NextGen Florida director Jackie Lee.

NextGen has a new ad airing in Tampa Bay linking the governor to Duke Energy. "Rick Scott's favorite power company" has been bilking customers, the ad says, noting that Duke is helping fund the Scott campaign and that Scott used to run a health care company that paid record fines for Medicare fraud.

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'Political Connections'

Check out a debate on the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum on Political Connections at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. today on Bay News 9.

Guests are advocates Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, and Kyle Parks, spokesman for the Yes on Greenlight campaign, and opponent Barb Haselden, leader of No Tax for Tracks.

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Winner of the week

Charlie Crist. He heads into the final month of the campaign with at least a little breeze at his back - including an extra $1 million Hillary Clinton helped raise for him in Miami last week and an additional $5 million committed by the environmental groupNextGen Climate.

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Loser of the week

College Republican National Committee. The group may take the prize for producing the lamest ad of the year. Apparently concluding that the way to appeal to young women is to liken candidates to wedding dresses, the online spot features a young woman choosing between the "Rick Scott" dress and the "Charlie Crist" dress. "Rick Scott is becoming a trusted brand! He has new ideas that don't break your budget!"

Alex Leary contributed to this week's Buzz.

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