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National

Florida primary Tuesday will set up bitter fall races

Florida has focused primarily on the prospects for November, where Democrat Joe Garcia already has raised $1 million in his fight to unseat U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in Miami. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has knocked on an estimated 2,000 doors in Broward County as he defends his seat.

But over the next week, the front in the fight for Congress will be elsewhere, as primary contests are waged across other parts of Florida.

The most competitive: a rancorous Republican primary in Palm Beach County in which the victor will try to oust Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Democrat who narrowly won the Republican-leaning district after Rep. Mark Foley stepped down in disgrace. Mahoney's seat is a major target for Republicans, who are otherwise on the defensive in several Florida districts.

Gov. Charlie Crist stepped into the race Friday in an effort to tamp down some of the rancor, endorsing Tom Rooney, an attorney whose family owns the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

''When Charlie speaks, the people of Florida listen,'' said Joe Negron, who narrowly lost to Mahoney in 2006. Rooney served as an assistant attorney general when Crist was the attorney general.

Rooney is running against state Rep. Gayle Harrell and businessman Hal Valeche, who has attacked Rooney's ties to the dog track and ripped into both rivals with a TV ad claiming that they ''don't share our conservative values'' on abortion.

Valeche and Harrell each attacked Crist's endorsement Friday, suggesting that gambling interests had played a role and portraying themselves as the true conservatives in the race.

''This is another example of the influence [that] rich special interests and their well-connected lobbyists have on the political process and one more reason it's time to change the way government works,'' said Harrell's campaign manager, Anthony Bonna.

''This one is very much up for grabs,'' said David Wasserman, who watches congressional races for the nonpartisan Cook Report.

Democrats have aggressively put three Republican seats in Miami into play for the first time in years, but none of the races involve primaries. The party is targeting at least six seats in Florida. Republicans are hoping to take Mahoney's seat away from the majority party, and retain the seat now held by retiring Republican Rep. Dave Weldon.

In Orlando, five Democrats are running in the primary for the chance to challenge Republican Rep. Ric Keller, a top Democratic target. They include businessman Charlie Stuart, who lost to Keller in the general election in 2006, attorney Mike Smith and Alan Grayson, who lost to Stuart in the Democratic primary in 2006.

Democrats haven't picked a favorite in the race, but said they view the seat as a ''great pickup opportunity'' for the party in an election year that may favor congressional Democrats.

Keller also faces a primary of his own. He is being challenged by Todd Long in a primary marked by a Keller attack mailer that points out Long's 1998 arrest for DUI.

On the Space Coast, Republicans and Democrats are in primaries to succeed outgoing Republican Rep. Dave Weldon, whose retirement created the only open seat in the state.

Republican state Sen. Bill Posey, who has two opponents in the primary, has been considered the favorite to win the Republican-leaning seat, but Democrats are enthusiastic about the candidacy of Paul Rancatore, an Air Force Reserve officer. He faces physician Stephen Blythe in the primary.

On the west coast, three Democrats, including Bill Dicks, the former mayor of Plant City, employment attorney Bill Mitchell and activist Anita dePalma, are vying to take on freshman Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis, now in the seat that his father, Michael, had held since 1982.

In a race drawing national attention in Orlando, Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, a key Democratic target, and his expected challenger, former Democratic state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, have both drawn primary challengers they are expected to defeat. Democrats have sought to link Feeney to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom he accompanied on a 2003 golf trip to Scotland; Feeney has said he did nothing wrong.

None of the three races in Miami drew primary challenges, and the two South Florida Democrats who did attract primary challengers are expected to defeat them. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, is being challenged by former Belle Glade Mayor Ray Torres Sanchez, and Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, faces a challenge from Paul Francis Renneisen, who has criticized Klein for not doing more to end the war in Iraq.

There are several other primary contests in districts where the incumbents are expected to win. They include, in North Florida, two Republicans who are facing off in a primary to challenge Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, did have a primary challenger, but Land O'Lakes Republican Jim King dropped out of the race after news reports questioned the veracity of his résumé. His name will still be on the ballot.

Three Democrats are vying to challenge Brown-Waite, including H. David ''The FlagPole Sitter'' Werder, who earned his moniker from sitting atop a flagpole for 439 days in 1980 to protest gasoline prices.

Two Democrats are in a primary to challenge Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando; three Democrats are in a primary to challenge Rep. Bill Young, R-St. Pete Beach.

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