Florida Incumbent Shaw Faces Strong Challenge

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Clay Shaw has represented the Fort Lauderdale area in Congress since 1981. This year, he's facing stiff competition from Democratic challenger Ron Klein, who's trying to play up Shaw's ties to President Bush. Klein is also attacking Shaw's record on Medicare.


Last Friday was dubbed National Doughnut Hole Day, that's the day when seniors on average would statistically begin to fall into the Medicare prescription drug coverage known as the doughnut hole. It was an event marked mostly by Democrats who believe dissatisfaction with the Medicare drug program could help their congressional candidates in November.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: If voters anywhere have an opinion about the Medicare prescription drug plan, you would expect it to be here in Florida's 22nd Congressional District. It's a district that stretches from West Palm Beach through Boca Raton, south to Fort Lauderdale - and where one out of four potential voter is over age 65.

State Senator RON KLEIN (Democratic Congressional Candidate): The problem that I certainly see is people in Washington are not listening.

ALLEN: The Democratic candidate here, Ron Klein, has assembled a few of those over 65 voters here on the patio at Dandee Donuts in Pompano Beach. They're here to talk about an issue that's become a national focus for Democrats, the so-called doughnut hole; that's the gap in coverage built into the Medicare Part D drug program. It kicks in after the beneficiaries have received $2250 worth of drugs and doesn't end until they've spent $3600 of their own money.

Harold Ostrow is with the Voters Coalition, a nonpartisan group in Palm Beach County, that in the past has always endorsed Republican Clay Shaw. This year, the group switched its endorsement to Democratic challenger Ron Klein, Ostrow says, largely because of the Medicare drug issue.

Mr. HAROLD OSTROW (Chairman, Voters Coalition): It has suddenly emerged as an important issue because people have suddenly started to reach the doughnut hole. And they're learning that once they're in the doughnut hole, there is no Plan D.

ALLEN: Here in Florida and around the country, seniors are finding out first hand about the doughnut hole. But analysts say it's not turning out to be the potent political issue many thought it would be. The Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking attitudes about the prescription drug plan. Foundation President, Drew Altman, says poll shows that more than eight in 10 seniors say they're satisfied with their drug plan. And when asked to list the most important issue in determining their vote for Congress, Altman says the prescription drugs benefit - and more broadly, healthcare - ranked below Iraq, terrorism, and even gas prices.

Mr. DREW ALTMAN (President, The Kaiser Family Foundation): The issue of prescription drugs may be a critical personal worry and concern, but it's pretty far down the list of voting issues on their mind when they go to vote.

ALLEN: Ever since it was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, the politics of the prescription drug plan has been tough to handicap. In recent months, Democrats thought the high cost of the program - at least $600 billion - and problems like the doughnut hole would work to their advantage. Instead, it's beginning to look like a tossup, but that's not how Republican incumbent Clay Shaw sees it.

Representative CLAY SHAW (Republican, Florida): The polls show that 85 percent of the people who have signed up, and the vast majority of the seniors have signed up, are satisfied. And I can tell you, anytime you get that kind of satisfaction with a federally run program, that's pretty darn good. So we are doing the right thing.

ALLEN: So far, Democrat Ron Klein's campaign hasn't any run any ads targeting Clay Shaw for his part in passing the prescription drug plan. Klein's ads instead mirror what other Democratic candidates are doing - linking the Republican congressman to George W. Bush - stressing that Clay Shaw votes with the president 90 percent of the time. Even if it's not their number one issue, Klein believes his criticism of the Medicare drug plan does resonate with voters.

State Sen. KLEIN: Again, I think it's a level of frustration that once again was a sellout here by Congress to insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. And also, it's symptomatic of failure of Congress to deal with Katrina, the failure in Iraq, and a lot of other things that Congress has not stepped up - asked the tough questions and made some commonsense solutions.

ALLEN: Clay Shaw has served in Congress for 25 years and is now the second most senior Republican on the important Ways and Means Committee. He's had both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in for fundraisers. But in his ads, he's working to distance himself from the president.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Straight talk from Clay Shaw.

Rep. SHAW: I have disagreed with the president on this particular matter...

ALLEN: Shaw says he doesn't take offense at Klein's ads linking him to the president, but concedes that this is not the year for him to tout his Republican credentials.

Rep. SHAW: The party line does not win elections this year, so we have to reach out to make sure that we're all inclusive. It would be a terrible mistake to run a partisan race this time.

ALLEN: That's especially the case here in Florida's 22nd District, which has large numbers of Democrats and Independents, and where John Kerry won in 2004. Democrats see a win here as crucial, if they're going to be successful in their bid to take back control of the House of Representatives. It's expected to be a close race, and an expensive one. So far, the price tag is $6 million and counting.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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