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In Florida, the Mark Foley scandal has turned his once solidly Republican district into a battleground. The GOP has chosen Joe Negron - he's a local rising star in Republican politics - to run in Foley's place. But to win, Negron has to convince voters to cast their ballots for Mark Foley. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen explains.
GREG ALLEN: Joe Negron recalls the minute last Friday when his life changed. It was 3:10 p.m. He got in his car and checked his messages.
Mr. JOE NEGRON (Republican Congressional Candidate, Florida): I had 16 voicemails. And I still remember this message. Somebody said, call me, call me, call me, call me, like (unintelligible). I said, what is going on?
ALLEN: What was going on was that Republican Congressman Mark Foley had resigned. By Monday, party leaders said Negron would be running in Foley's place. Since then, Negron's life has been a blur of 18-hour days - hiring staff, contacting supporters, doing interviews, making fundraising calls. With less than five weeks until the election, Joe Negron has to reach voters in eight far-flung Florida counties. Making his job even tougher, he has to explain to them that while he's a replacement for Mark Foley, under Florida law his name won't appear on the ballot, but Foley's will. The only way Negron can win is if a majority cast ballots for a Congressman accused of sexual impropriety with minors, a Congressman who's resigned in disgrace. But in politics, it pays to be an optimist.
Mr. NEGRON: I don't think it's a tough race.
ALLEN: Lately, Negron has just about set up shop in the Osceola Café in downtown Stuart, the fishing town on the Atlantic coast where he grew up and which he represented for six years in the state legislature. He knows the district and the voters.
Mr. NEGRON: This is a Republican seat. It's been a Republican seat for more than a quarter of a century, and the voters in this district are conservative, and they're mainstream voters, and they don't believe in collective guilt. You know, this race is not a referendum on Mark Foley. Everyone agrees that what Mark Foley did was reprehensible, and the voters are ready to move on.
ALLEN: A week ago, Foley's Democratic challenger, wealthy businessman Tim Mahoney, was having a hard time getting much attention. But even before Foley's departure, Mahoney says he was confident he would win.
Mr. TIM MAHONEY (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Florida): We're having a little bit of a distraction, but I think it's a good distraction, because I think this gets back to the issue of, you know, the first thing we need to do is we've got to address cronyism and this corruption, this culture of wrong priorities in Washington, D.C. I think that, unfortunately for America, this just highlights just how rife this problem is and how we need to address it.
ALLEN: But in the 16th District, it's a fact of life that Democrats are in the minority. President Bush won here with a comfortable 55 percent of the vote in 2004. On the streets of Stuart, you run into people who know Joe Negron personally. John Phillips(ph) isn't one of those, but he's voted for Negron in the past, and he's voted for Mark Foley. Phillips says he'll have no problem casting a ballot yet again for Mark Foley.
Mr. JOHN PHILLIPS (Florida Voter): If you like the Republican, go in there and vote for Foley, and the other guy'll get it, and that's it.
ALLEN: Do you think that it's going to be hard to get that message through to people?
Mr. PHILLIPS: No, I don't. No, I think people are a lot smart than a lot of people give them credit for. I think people know what's going on.
ALLEN: To make sure that's the case, Republican leaders from Governor Jeb Bush on down are doing everything they can to make sure voters know that ballots cast for Mark Foley will be counted for Joe Negron. They want county election supervisors to post signs in polling places and include notes in absentee ballots informing voters about the change. But that now appears unlikely. County election officials say they believe such language would violate state law. Negron says getting the signs posted in polling places is important to his campaign, and Susan McManus agrees. McManus is a political scientist at the University of South Florida. Negron can win the race, she says, but only if all the cards fall his way.
Professor SUSAN McMANUS (University of South Florida): He's got to have all the Republicans turn out that possibly can and stick with the party, and he's got to have high-profile Republican leaders coming in to support him. It's going to take a royal flush for him to win.
ALLEN: Negron says he's already getting national Republican Party help. Next week he'll be out campaigning with popular outgoing Governor Jeb Bush. But Mahoney is also getting outside Democratic help. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was in last week, and later this month, former President Bill Clinton will be paying a visit. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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