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Fla. race offers hints of midterm strategies

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Voters in this stretch of beach towns and retirement communities provide the first 2014 campaign test of whether Democrats can counter GOP attacks on the president’s health care overhaul by accusing Republicans of threatening popular benefit programs for the elderly.

Democrat Alex Sink and her allies in the spirited race to replace the late Bill Young in the US House have spent millions of dollars on TV ads ahead of Tuesday’s special election painting Republican David Jolly, a lawyer and former lobbyist, as an extremist who wants to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare. Sink was the state’s chief financial officer.

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Jolly has responded with a TV spot featuring his elderly mother and aunt, in which he says ‘‘protecting their Social Security means everything to me.’’

Jolly argues that it is Sink who would undermine Medicare because of Democratic-passed cuts to the program under President Obama’s health care law.

The suburban St. Petersburg district is considered a proving ground for each party’s political messages and a possible bellwether for the midterm elections. Officials in both parties have said in recent days that private polls show the race to be close. Each party has made late appeals for campaign cash.

Former President Clinton recorded a phone call last week seeking local volunteers to help with Sink’s campaign and a half-dozen House Democrats e-mailed fund-raising appeals to their supporters on behalf of Sink. More than a third of Jolly’s campaign contributions came from members of Congress. Meanwhile, Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, joined Jolly on a conference call with voters, and Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, recorded a phone message.

Although Republicans held the congressional seat for four decades until Young’s death last year, the district’s voters favored Obama in the past two presidential elections. The candidates, their party committees, and outside groups have spent almost $10 million blanketing the airwaves with largely negative ads focused on health care costs and Social Security.

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