CLEARWATER — When the likes of B.B. King and Art Garfunkel are on stage at the Capitol Theatre, they play the hits, and work one or two deeper cuts into their sets for the die-hard fans.
The three candidates hoping to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in Congressional District 13 followed a similar format in Tuesday morning's debate at the theater, the second of three in the March 11 special election campaign.
An oft-repeated performance is not unexpected in a race many consider to be a testing ground for campaign issues prior to the national midterm elections in November.
“This is the lead-off hitter for the entire country,” said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus, who moderated the event.
Although Social Security, flood insurance, the Affordable Care Act and other key parts of any candidates' repertoire were again common themes, they were confronted with issues not among their talking points: namely, the nasty tone of the advertising that interest groups have been streaming into the local media market.
The Tribune and other organizations have scrutinized a slew of television spots slamming either Republican David Jolly or Democrat Alex Sink, with a majority of the claims found to be false, misleading or lacking context.
National organizations such the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the House Majority PAC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee are among those that have purchased millions of dollars in attack ads.
Despite being the apparent beneficiaries, Jolly and Sink disavowed such ads Tuesday.
“What we are all sick and tired of is the vitriol and the rhetoric on both sides that creates so much noise, the voters don't get to know where we stand on the issues,” Jolly said. “It is frustrating. It's very frustrating.”
He said he'd like to see candidate campaigns be responsible for the ads outside groups run ostensibly to their benefit.
Sink said the flurry of attack ads from outside groups is the result of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, a Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporations, labor unions and other organizations to spend money attempting to sway elections.
“The worst part about the ruling was that these groups are spending (and) we don't know who the money is behind it,” Sink said.
On Monday, Sink's campaign posted a multi-pronged approach to lobbying and campaign finance reform on its Web site, which included strengthening disclosure requirements for outside groups.
“I myself am enduring tremendous negative advertising against me ... that are false and misleading. They're just things that are being pulled out from the Rick Scott, what I call 'mean machine playbook,' ” she added. “It's distracting and it's inaccurate.”
Libertarian Lucas Overby said the profusion of such ads is contradictory to what Pinellas County voters want.
“I actually wish the outside groups would stop running ads at all,” he said. “The voters that we work with are sick and absolutely tired of them. I wish we could get to more public forums. That's the more appropriate way to elect a public official, not who has the most money to run the most heinous ad.”
The candidates were asked to address the inaccurate claims in many of the ads, either paid for by outside groups or the campaigns.
Although Sink deplored ads that, among other things, attack her record when she was the state chief financial officer, Jolly called out Sink on ads her campaign has bought claiming he would support privatizing Social Security.
“Alex, your claims on my Social Security record have been rated false ... I think it's unfortunate,” Jolly said. “We have seen this in campaigns across the country, where one party tries to scare seniors. That's what's happening. Some of the most vulnerable people in our community, right now, on TV are being scared by falsehoods. The voters deserve better.”
The state Democratic party came to her aid, defending the campaign's claims.
Overby, whose comparatively less-than-flush campaign has stayed above the fray, said he hasn't had to worry about false statements about his two opponents because he prefers to focus on the issues.
“I don't think we've actually made any wrong statements about either of these two, so we haven't had to make any corrections,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the audience. “I actually don't talk about these guys ever.”