TAMPA — The moderate middle doesn't seem popular in politics lately, but during a Tampa state House candidates' forum Tuesday it was where everybody wanted to be.
That's probably because the Tiger Bay Club forum included three candidates running in two swing districts that could go either way in November — Republican Shawn Harrison and Democrat Lisa Montelione in District 63, the New Tampa-university area, and Democrat David Singer in South Tampa-based District 60.
Singer's opponent, Republican Jackie Toledo, didn't appear, telling club officials she had a scheduling conflict. That left Singer alone with the chance to label her an extremist whose views on immigration fall "to the right of Donald Trump."
Harrison is one of the most vulnerable Republican House incumbents.
His district has switched sides in each of the last three elections, largely because of University of South Florida students, who swarm to the polls in presidential years. Democrats hope they'll help elect Montelione this year.
Harrison repeatedly called himself a moderate, and mentioned at least twice that he was one of only four House Republicans to vote in favor of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, a Democratic priority killed by Florida's Republican conservatives.
He even brought up that he served as president of the College Democrats at the University of South Florida.
"I come from a background of middle-of-the-road politics," Harrison said. When he became a Republican, "I kept the belief that the other side is not evil."
Harrison has courted endorsements from Democrats including City Council member Frank Reddick — possibly emboldened by a conflict between Reddick and Montelione over the City Council chairmanship.
Montelione, meanwhile, spoke repeatedly about her background in private business. She has worked for a bank, in real estate development and in construction before winning election to the Tampa City Council in 2011.
She has resigned from the council, effective in November, as legally required to run in the House race.
She tried to paint Harrison as a typical Republican, emphasizing her differences with him in supporting Planned Parenthood and abortion rights, and opposing the diversion of money from public education to vouchers and for-profit charter schools.
Except for Harrison's Medicaid expansion vote, she said, "The votes have all been party line."
Harrison denied that in an interview afterward, citing his vote this year against a House Republican leadership priority — a bill to convert the state pension system to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
Differences stood out when questioners in the mostly Democratic crowd asked the candidates' opinions on Donald Trump and Gov. Rick Scott.
Montelione and Singer zestfully bashed both, but Harrison gave Scott a grade of B-plus and said Trump "is the nominee of my party. … I can't really see a situation arising where I'm not going to support the nominee of my party."
District 60 leans slightly Republican, but Democrats hope Trump's unpopularity in upscale South Tampa will help Singer win.
Singer also sought to make himself palatable to the other side, emphasizing his work in real estate development as a land-use lawyer and saying the state needs "a balance" on both environmental regulation and charter schools.
He said Toledo's opposition to a 2014 law allowing in-state university tuition for children of illegal immigrants is a harsher stance than even Trump has taken.
Contact William March at firstname.lastname@example.org