District 13 Race Could Tip Balance of Power in D.C

District 13
SARASOTA -

It doesn't take long to figure out how much importance the national political parties are placing on the race to succeed Katherine Harris in Congress:

BUSH: I ask you to vote for Vern Buchanan. He'll be an ally in making sure your taxes stay low, so the economy grows. And an ally in making sure the United States government does everything in our power to protect the American people and to make sure than an entire generation of Americans can grow up in peace.

President Bush came to Sarasota last week to stump for the Republican candidate for the 13th Congressional District, Vern Buchanan. Days later, the president's wife regaled about 200 women at a tea. Laura Bush's visit came only three weeks after Dick Cheney spoke to the Republican faithful here for $1,000 a head.

And on Saturday, former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani is expected to rally the voters at Five Points Park.

But this flurry of big-name support is happening in a solidly Republican district that has been in the GOP's grip for 20 years.

The reason? A well-financed campaign by moderate Democrat Christine Jennings - combined with the general backlash against the ruling Republicans. Candidate Jennings:

JENNINGS: The numbers of registrations is not what matters. What matters to the people of this district, they will always look at the issues or the people running to make a decision. The people of this district do not go in and vote a straight party line.

Jennings traveled to New York City this week for fundraisers with former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton. She has previously appeared alongside former General Wesley Clark.

The retired head of Sarasota Bank bested perennial candidate Jan Schneider in the Democratic primary. And Buchanan - who owns several automobile dealerships - survived a bruising battle with the eventual runner-up, Tramm Hudson.

Hudson had accused his opponent of unethical business practices - including a litany of lawsuits and bankruptcy filings. That tone has found its way into the general campaign.

BUCHANAN COMMERCIAL: Do you really know Christine Jennings? She's running a false and negative campaign to hide her dangerous ideas...

During a debate last week before the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club, Buchanan says sometimes, you have to go negative.

BUCHANAN: I don't like negative, I never have liked it, but when someone starts to attack you and call you a tax cheat - we've had one tax issue in 30 years - you've got to defend yourself. Then you get pulled down into the mud.

It's not only the Republicans who have dragged out national media consultants.

JENNINGS COMMERCIAL: There's something about Vern Buchanan. He's carrying around a lot of, well, baggage. Vicious, negative attacks on his opponents...

USF political science professor Daryl Paulson says the race has attracted so much interest because for the first time in a while, the Democrats 'have their act together.' Paulson says he expects Jennings to win.

PAULSON: Both in part because of Katherine Harris and her image, and how that drags the party down in general, but also because of Vern Buchanan, the messy Republican primary fight they had - they raised all these negative issues, which was just wonderful for the Democrats and Christine Jennings. And also because the Sarasota district is an upscale highbrow Republican district, an artsy craftsy district, so to speak. It is not a social, religious conservative district. That's what Vern Buchanan is running as. And so I don't think he's a very good fit for that district.

Buchanan gave his campaign $800,000 from his own pocket last week. That brings the total he has contributed to $4.5 million - tying a state record. That's on top of more than $2 million dollars he spent in the primary.

All this for a position that pays $165,000 a year.

Buchanan accused Jennings of having most of her money come from the Democratic National Committee.

BUCHANAN: Do you want Washington and the folks up there buying the ads, or would you rather have a candidate put in his own money?

Jennings has gotten financial backing from the national Democratic Party as part of their 'Red to Blue' campaign. But during last week's debate, she supported public financing of campaigns.

JENNINGS: I would love to see that. It is just wrong the amount of money spent on these campaigns... I am all for it, and I will lead the charge, believe me.

Many of their differences run along party lines.

Jennings is for civil unions between non-married couples;' Buchanan supports marriage only between a man and a woman. Buchanan says he's for lowering taxes, Jennings wants to repeal the tax cuts enacted for the nation's top one percent of earners.

Jennings is against public vouchers for private schools, which Buchanan supports. Then, there's Iraq.

BUCHANAN: I want to resolve it as quickly as we can, get the kids home, but I want to make sure they come home with their heads held high. I don't want another Vietnam.

Jennings says she would change the focus from having troops on the ground in Iraq to more closely fighting the war on terror.

JENNINGS: I support our troops, but how in the world do you fight a war when there is no strategy?

And on the issue of immigration, Jennings says it would be impossible to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Buchanan says 'If we don't secure our borders, we're going to lose our country.'

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