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House Democrats Prospecting in Fla.

With more than 50 years of House service among them, Florida GOP Reps. Ric Keller, Dave Weldon and Bill Young hardly would seem the picture of vulnerable incumbents.

But between retirement rumors, an unpopular war and the fact that the three represent veteran-heavy, increasingly swing districts, House Democrats believe they have a decent shot of ousting any combination of Keller, Weldon and Young.

“These are three seats we really see as targets at this stage of the game,” said one source at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “In all of these districts we can be really competitive and we have some interesting prospects.”

Republicans quickly counter that Democratic dreams of potential upsets were delusional, adding that not only did they anticipate the GOP retaining the seats, but that they intend to take back seats won by freshman Florida Democratic Reps. Ron Klein and Tim Mahoney in November.

“Clearly Democrats have spent too much time at Disney World, as they apparently have lost all sense of reality,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley. “Not only are they going to have their hands full in Florida 16 and Florida 22 — seats we plan on getting back in the next election cycle — they’re the ones that have something to worry about in Florida.”

With the better part of a year and a half until Election Day, Democrats sounded the opening bell last week, firing off an e-mail from state party leaders suggesting that Young already is seated squarely in Democrats’ sights. They attempted to link Young to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal in a blast e-mail.

The 19-term incumbent, the current No. 2 Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, previously chaired the panel’s subcommittee on Defense, which oversees funding for the Washington, D.C., medical facility.

“Young was more worried about the potential public relations disaster than he was about the wounded soldiers falling out of their beds and sleeping in their own urine at the nation’s premier military hospital,” read a March 15 mass e-mail from former Rep. Karen Thurman, who is now the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party. “His silence on this issue is a moral outrage.”

A DCCC operative suggested that Young’s alleged proximity to the Walter Reed scandal likely could be a rallying point for an already packed field of likely Democratic contenders for the 10th district seat.

According to multiple Democratic sources, Democrats currently are courting local hospital administrator Sue Brody; state Sen. Charlie Justice; state Reps. Rick Kriseman and Bill Heller; former state Speaker Peter Wallace and former state Rep. Lars Hafner.

And the potential field likely will stay dense for the foreseeable future, sources say, as only Wallace has indicated that he does not plan on running. Although the St. Petersburg-area district is a tossup in presidential races, Young ran over his 2006 opponent, garnering more than 65 percent of the vote against broadcaster Samm Simpson, who raised just $40,000. Democratic leaders have not approached Simpson about running again.

Democrats say GOP leaders are petrified Young will decide not to run in 2008, which likely would set off a primary scramble in both parties. Veterans make up about 18 percent of the district’s population.

Democrats also are eyeing Keller’s central Florida district as a potential 2008 pickup and are recruiting his 2006 foe, business consultant Charlie Stuart. Keller bested Stuart by about 13,000 votes in November.

According to Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski, Keller “can see the writing on the wall” and is adjusting his voting record in anticipation of a tough 2008 re-election bid. The Orlando-area 8th district gave President Bush a 10-point victory in 2004, but Democrats believe that with so many newcomers, the district is up for grabs.

“Ric Keller knows he’s in trouble,” Bubriski said. “He’s voting with Democrats. Before, he was one of the most conservative Republicans, a Bush faithful. All of a sudden he’s sounding like a moderate. It’s quite a quick conversion.”

Democrats added that they likely will make political hay out Keller’s promise not to seek a fifth term.

“He made a term-limit pledge that he will be breaking in 2008 and he’d already announced his intentions,” Bubriski said.

Unlike Keller, Bubriski said Weldon “doesn’t seem to realize he’s in trouble.” Bubriski said Democrats are likely to focus on social issues, which he said Weldon puts “out of touch with his district.”

Weldon spokesman Kurt Heath, however, said the proof is in the pudding.

“The Democrats have targeted him in the past and leveled the same harangue,” Heath said. “The district continues to differ with their rhetoric.”

The 15th district on Florida’s Space Coast gave Bush a 14-point win in the 2004 White House election.

Still up in the air is how both parties will approach the still-contested 13th district race, which is still pending in the Florida court system. The House Administration Committee, which also has been asked to investigate the disputed election between now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) and Democrat Christine Jennings, is scheduled to explore election reform at a subcommittee meeting today.

“There’s still district 13, which we don’t believe is over — but who knows what’s going to happen there?” Bubriski said. “Congress is taking it up now, so maybe that’ll be resolved.”

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