Republican congressional candidate hits Obamacare in Florida debate

The Republican hoping to preserve his party's hold on a closely contested, vacant congressional seat in Florida took less than a minute in a debate Monday to hit what he hopes will be the winning theme.

His Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, wants to "further the agenda of President Obama," Republican David Jolly said in his opening statement. At his earliest opportunity, Jolly returned to the idea, saying he favored repealing the president's healthcare law.


The two parties and affiliated groups already have spent millions of dollars on the race in the St. Petersburg-area district and are likely to spend several million more before the March 11 election. National attention has focused on the contest as a tryout of slogans and approaches each side will stress in the campaigns leading up to November's midterm election.

The seat came open with the death in the fall of longtime Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Although the seat has been in GOP hands for decades, the district has been trending Democratic, and the race appears close.

While Jolly stressed his opposition to Obamacare, Sink sought to use Monday's televised debate to tie him to the unpopularity of congressional Republicans.

She repeatedly referred to herself as a pragmatist, willing to work across partisan lines. And she sought to link Jolly, a former congressional staff member turned Washington lobbyist, to GOP budget proposals that would have trimmed Social Security and Medicare -- unpopular ideas in a district heavy with senior citizens.

The Democrat conceded that Obamacare had "not been perfect." But, echoing a line Obama used in his State of the Union speech, she declared that "we cannot go back to where we were."

Repealing the health law would once again allow insurance companies to deny coverage to people with health problems and would force seniors to pay higher drug costs, she said.

The two also differed on immigration reform and same-sex marriage, with Jolly opposed to both and Sink in favor.

In addition to the national themes, two local issues figured prominently in the debate: Jolly stressed that Sink had only just recently moved into the district -- she previously lived nearby.

Sink stressed her opposition to new, higher federal flood insurance rates, unpopular in Florida but backed in Washington by House Republicans. Jolly sought to distance himself from his party on that issue.

The two were joined in the debate by a Libertarian candidate, Lucas Overby, who stressed at one point that he is not yet 30. Political strategists on both sides have said they are uncertain whether Overby will potentially draw more votes from one side or the other.

Twitter: @DavidLauter