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Candidates for Florida attorney general clash in style, policy and just about everything

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — From their style, to their opposing positions on everything from regulating utilities to the need for a ban on same-sex marriage, the Florida's two main attorneys general candidates seem to have very little in common.

Republican incumbent Pam Bondi and Democrat George Sheldon have stark differences about their approach to a post that is arguably the second-most powerful in state government. The attorney general is the state's chief legal officer, but has numerous duties including defending state laws, handling death row appeals and going after companies that deceive consumers.

Bondi is a former prosecutor who has spent the last four years tackling issues like prescription drug abuse and human trafficking with zeal, yet has come under fire for her opposition to medical marijuana and same-sex marriage. One of her most scrutinized decisions came when she asked that an execution be delayed because the date conflicted with a fundraiser of hers.

The 48-year-old Bondi has also eagerly taken on the administration of Barack Obama especially over the president's health care overhaul. She's gotten involved in contentious national legal battles that haven't directly impacted Florida including filing a legal brief challenging an environmental dispute involving Chesapeake Bay.

Bondi led the charge to let the University of South Florida exhume bodies at a closed reform school in the Panhandle despite local opposition. And with a near manic energy, she ticks off a list of issues, include cyberbullying to the problem of identity theft that she says she's eager to tackle if she gets elected to another four years.

"Frankly, I don't think this is a four-year office," Bondi said. "This office needs to be eight years. With an office this big to accomplish everything that you want to accomplish, you want to save lives, that's what it's about every single day."

With a calm and at-times professorial tone, Sheldon asserts that Bondi has been too fixated on partisan causes and ignored the traditional role of the attorney general's office. Sheldon once contended that Bondi's next job should be as a Fox News anchor.

The 67-year old also faulted Bondi over defending the state's ban on same-sex marriage amid a line of rulings striking down similar bans across the country and opposing the amendment to allow the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

"Pam and I have amazing differences on policy issues," Sheldon said. "But frankly, it's about not me or about Pam. It's about what that office ought to be and where Floridians want to take this state."

Sheldon has a lengthy resume of government service, but has been defeated in previous campaigns for statewide office. His political career began 40 years ago when he was elected to the Florida Legislature. He has spent time in private practice as an attorney, but he was hired as deputy attorney general in 1999 under then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth. He worked for Butterworth again in the Department of Children and Families and was chosen by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to succeed Butterworth when Crist was still a Republican.

Sheldon also spent nearly two years as a top administrator in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Obama before mounting his campaign for attorney general.

Bondi has a significant financial advantage in her bid for a second term. She has raised more than $4 million between her campaign and a political committee helping her and also gotten an additional $1.35 million in help from the Republican Party of Florida while Sheldon has raised slightly more than $820,000. The third candidate in the race is Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer.

Bondi bristles over the charges that she's been taken the office into an overt partisan direction calling it a "cheap political taking point" from a "career politician."

"I am a career prosecutor and I'm going to do everything I possibly can to make Florida the safest place possible to live," Bondi said.

Some of the Sheldon's biggest criticisms have been over Bondi's handling of utility rate cases and her decision to largely sidestep any cases involving electric companies. Bondi did earlier this month ask the Public Service Commission to force Duke Energy to refund $54 million it has charged consumers in connection to two nuclear power plants it scuttled. But it marked the first time she publicly got involved with an electric company case.

Sheldon says he will be more aggressive in challenging requests from the state's power companies to state regulators.

"There's very few things that affect the citizens of Florida as their utility rates," Sheldon said.

Bondi maintains that her office "closely" monitors the PSC, but asserts that it is the job of the state's public counsel to represent consumers. She said she got involved in the Duke case because consumers deserved to get their money back.

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