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Diaz Drops Far Behind Keller, They Clash Bitterly In Their District 8 Debate

Diaz Drops Far Behind Keller In Bid For Congress

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

His campaign manager has been fired. His bank account is all but empty. The political party that wooed him to its side has left him at the altar. And polls show his opponent is so far out in front, he is barely visible.

Cop-turned-politician Eddie Diaz has faced tough odds before, including when he took eight bullets from an assailant's gun and struggled back from near death and partial paralysis.

But with just three weeks before Election Day, Diaz's hopes of parlaying his well-publicized struggle into a congressional seat have never seemed dimmer.

A new poll commissioned by the Orlando Sentinel and WESH-NewsChannel 2 indicates Diaz is trailing District 8 incumbent Ric Keller by 29 points, a wider gulf than in any other Central Florida congressional race.

"The fact that Keller is running well above 50 percent is an indication that his chances are pretty solid," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington. "Diaz isn't really getting any of the Republican crossover votes he'd need to win."

The two will meet for a live, televised debate at 7 p.m. today in what pundits say could be Diaz's last and best chance to connect with voters.

"My strategy is to make voters aware of who Eddie Diaz is and what issues are important to him," Diaz said Monday during a break from debate preparation.

That strategy is a change of course.

His campaign manager, Joe Johnson, urged Diaz to spend more time raising money than attending community events, said Doug Head, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party.

Fund raising proved difficult from the start. Diaz initially hired a West Virginia political consulting firm on the recommendation of national party officials, but he eventually fired the firm and hired a Central Florida financing chairwoman.

And Diaz's endorsement of Janet Reno over Bill McBride angered union leaders, crippling his ability to attract substantial funding from what are generally the party's stalwart backers.

Keller, meanwhile, has had no trouble finding contributions. He had raised $1.1 million by the time his most recent financial reports were filed; new reports must be filed with the Federal Elections Commission today.

Diaz had raised $171,000 when his last report was filed, but he spent most of it on consultants and office supplies -- things that voters never see.

Johnson, who was earning $1,750 a week, recently left the campaign.

"I thought it was time for a change," Diaz said. "We just decided to go our separate ways."

But Head said Diaz -- increasingly frustrated with the campaign's direction -- fired Johnson, who could not be reached for comment.

Also gone are press secretary Amy Chamberlain, who returned to South Florida to work for a state senator, and Saundra Brown, whom Diaz hired as his fund-raising chairwoman.

It's a reversal of fortune for Diaz, whose struggle for his life was so compelling it attracted the attention of both major political parties.

Republican and Democrat party leaders asked Diaz, an engaging Hispanic man in a region with a growing number of Hispanics, to seek office.

But since he declared his candidacy, Diaz has received little help from national, state and local Democratic Party officials.

He has received no contributions, and the local party -- prohibited from giving money directly to a federal candidate -- is even charging him rent for his campaign office.

The biggest blow came several months ago, when the Republican-controlled state Legislature redrew District 8 boundaries. Instead of a district where Hispanics made up 35 percent of the population, they now make up about 17 percent.

Shed of his old campaign advisers, Diaz is reaching out to voters, attending a slew of community events.

He is relying on what Head called his greatest strengths: charisma and a passion for helping others.

Polling shows he has a long way to go, however. In a poll of 407 District 8 voters interviewed Oct. 8 and 9, 57 percent said they would vote for Keller, 28 percent for Diaz, and 15 percent were undecided.

Keller said Monday that the numbers were similar to those from internal polling by his own campaign.

He said he looks forward to facing Diaz at tonight's debate.

"He's spent a lot of time criticizing me," Keller said. "I'd like to hear what he's actually for and how he's going to pay for it."

For his part, Diaz said he is not concerned with polling numbers.

"I put no weight in the polls," he said. "We're taking our campaign to the voters, and they're the ones who will decide on Election Day."

Diaz, Keller Clash Bitterly In Their District 8 Debate

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Congressional candidates Rep. Ric Keller and Eddie Diaz came out sparring in their first debate Tuesday, with Keller bragging about his record and Diaz trashing it.

Early in the hourlong debate -- sponsored by WESH-Channel 2 and the Orlando Sentinel -- both of the candidates vying for Central Florida's 8th District stuck to the strategies that have brought them this far.

Keller, the Republican incumbent, repeatedly touted his fights for tax relief, education reform and prescription drug coverage for seniors. His opening statement, in fact, was an almost word-for-word copy of his television ad.

Diaz, a Democrat, said his background as a war veteran, a former police officer shot in the line of duty and the husband of a teacher gave him first-hand experience with the issues important to Central Floridians.

It wasn't long before both men went at each other in a series of tit-for-tat attacks.

At one point, Keller badgered Diaz with a repeated challenge to explain the definition of an obscure tax break.

Diaz responded to a barb about what he stands for by pushing aside his cane and rising from his seat, reminding his opponent that he'd defied doctors' predictions that he'd never walk again.

As they sat side by side, the candidates' disdain for one another was palpable.

"Please don't spit on me when you're talking," Diaz said after one particularly bitter exchange.

Diaz blasted Keller for accepting $8,500 in political contributions from the political action committee for WorldCom, a company that is being "criminally investigated."

"People are losing their pensions, and you're taking money for your own political gain," Diaz said.

Keller said most of WorldCom's contributions have gone to Democratic candidates, and he said Diaz's objections are just political grandstanding.

"I suggest the voters have a choice between a workhorse with a record of getting something done or a show horse who's more interested in partisan publicity stunts," Keller said.

Diaz said he wants to give everyone health-care coverage, hire 100,000 new teachers and put more police on the streets. He said he'd fund some of those programs with a capital-gains tax and by doing away with corporate tax breaks favored by his opponent.

Keller said that wouldn't begin to pay for Diaz's costly ideas, and he accused Diaz of providing no details about his platform.

On the issue of going to war with Iraq, Keller said he supports military action because the country could soon become a nuclear threat.

"Saddam Hussein is a remorseless, pathologically aggressive dictator who wants nothing more than to put his finger on the button of nuclear weapons pointed in our direction," Keller said.

Diaz, a former Navy corpsman who served with a Marine combat unit in the Persian Gulf War, said he stands behind the president, but has concerns about a war's cost in lives and about long-term plans for the country once Hussein is removed from power.

Pointing out that Keller has never served in the military, Diaz said, "It is one thing to vote for war and it is one thing to go to war. I have seen the horror, smelled it, touched it, I have breathed it."

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