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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2018
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Leading the Florida Attorney General's race: 'Undecided'

TAMPA - With fewer than 100 days before the Florida primary, the race for attorney general, considered the second-most important state office after the governor, is stuck in a stalemate, with competitive primaries on both sides and no candidate able to pull ahead. On both sides, polls show the race nearly even, but the big winner is "undecided." Neither the press nor the voters appear to be paying much attention to the race, overshadowed by the sensational, headline-grabbing U.S. Senate race and recently, the race for governor. On the Republican side, Tampa Bay area favorite Pam Bondi, a former assistant state attorney and well-known media commentator, has piled up an impressive record of landslide wins in straw votes among party activists.
But that's not reflected in polls of GOP voters, where she's at best tied with Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, and only a bit ahead of former state legislator and health care administrator Holly Benson. On the Democratic side, state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, expected by some Democrats at the outset of the race to be the frontrunner, has been unable to pull away from state Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres in fundraising or polls. Last week, Gelber failed to win what could have been an important advantage, when the state's two largest organized labor groups, the AFL-CIO and the teachers' union, split their endorsement, saying they'd back either Gelber or Aronberg. The Republicans In the GOP race, Bondi is a clear favorite in the politically crucial Tampa Bay area, but Kottkamp is the only one of the three candidates who has ever run in a statewide race. Last week, in a straw poll held by the Hillsborough County Republican Party executive committee and the Fishhawk and Brandon Republican clubs, Bondi got 273 votes to 7 for Kottcamp and 2 for Benson. She has also had lopsided wins in straw polls in Volusia, Seminole, Leon and Pinellas counties. But a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll done in early May showed a completely undecided race -- Kottkamp led, but by less than the error margin, with 13 percent, to 10 percent for Bondi, 5 percent for Benson, and a huge 72 percent undecided. Winning straw polls among party activists "isn't indicative of the opinions of the electorate," said Benson campaign spokeswoman Sarah Bascom. "It's a campaign strategy to create momentum." David Bishop of the Kottkamp campaign said the campaign hasn't pursued a strategy of winning straw polls. "Our strategy has been to get endorsements from Republican leaders throughout the state who will go out and raise money for us," he said. Kottkamp has endorsements from 22 of the 28 Republican sheriffs, more than 40 state legislators and more members of Congress than Bondi or Benson, he said. Bondi spokesman Brett Doster acknowledged there is no frontrunner in the race, but said Bondi has advantages the other two don't. "She's a fresh face with no political liabilities," an advantage in an anti-incumbent year, he said. Kottkamp has been dinged by stories about using a state airplane for personal travel, he said, and could suffer by association with Gov. Charlie Crist, now considered a traitor among Republicans after leaving the Republican Party. Kottkamp has a money edge, with $590,000 raised as of the end of March, compared to Bondi's $421,000 and Benson's $401,000. The Democrats Gelber and Aronberg are both well known in Florida, but less so elsewhere. Both are popular among Democrats, many of whom wish the two were running for different offices instead of against each other. Some party activists initially thought Gelber would be the frontrunner because of his greater history of political activity including legislative leadership posts and his thicker resume, including a career as a federal prosecutor, anti-terrorism and organized crime investigator. "I was initially supposed to be the underdog," said Aronberg. "I don't think that's the perception any more." He said voters aren't making up their minds in the primaries because their attention is elsewhere. "The U.S. Senate and governor's races have become so compelling they've sucked all the oxygen out of the political environment," Aronberg said. "It's a constant battle to cut through all that." When voters' attention does return to the race, Gelber said, his advantages will show. "At the end of the day when people have to make a decision, this will be about who people think is more prepared, someone who has the background to do the job, not someone who's relatively inexperienced," he said. Last week, the Florida Education Association endorsed both candidates, and the AFL-CIO said it will endorse the winner of the Democratic primary. Gelber spokesman Christian Ulvert said that's not a loss for Gelber - "It just means that local affiliates are now free to engage and endorse the candidate of their choice, and we are in a strong position with lots of the local unions," he said. The Mason-Dixon poll showed Democrats just as undecided as Republicans in the race, with 15 percent for Gelber, 12 percent for Aronberg and 73 percent undecided. Aronberg had raised $915,000 at the end of March, compared to Gelber's $889,000.

Reporter William March can be reached at 813 259-7761

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