- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - David Jolly took an early lead Tuesday in the Republican primary to fill the seat of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who spent 43 years in Congress and died in October, according to preliminary returns counted.

Jolly, who was a longtime aide to Young, held a 44 percent to 31 percent lead over Kathleen Peters in early returns Tuesday night. Mark Bircher had 24 percent. Peters is a state representative. Bircher is a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve.

The winner of Tuesday’s vote will face Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election.

The 13th Congressional District encompasses almost all of densely populated Pinellas County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The district is considered a tossup: voters here backed former President George W. Bush in 2004 before narrowly supporting Barack Obama twice.

Democrats hope to use the special election to hammer Republicans over political dysfunction, which they say is exemplified by the government shutdown that far-right demands helped trigger last year. Republicans, who have held the seat for more than four decades, plan to blast Democrats over the disastrous launch of Obama’s health care law.

While all three Republicans in Tuesday’s primary favored repealing the health care law, Jolly cast himself as the staunchest opponent of the health care overhaul.

In mailers, he accused Peters of refusing to “take a stand” after she said the law should not be repealed without a comprehensive replacement. In turn, Peters quickly said she backed a full repeal, in addition to falsely claiming that Jolly had lobbied for “government-run health care.” (According to PolitiFact Florida, he said he lobbied for the transportation projects of company that also opened a health exchange call center.)

With little more than two months to campaign, the candidates also sought to attach themselves to Young, who died in October after more than four decades of service in the House.

Jolly, as a former Young aide, claimed the congressman’s death-bed endorsement, as well as the backing of Young’s widow, who appeared in TV ads. Peters, a former city commissioner and mayor elected to the statehouse in 2012, highlighted the support of Bill Young II, the late lawmaker’s son.

Sink, meanwhile, has the Democratic field to herself.

The former Florida chief financial officer and 2010 gubernatorial nominee has spent the last few months canvassing the district, railing against Washington gridlock and raising money. According to recent campaign finance reports, Sink raised more money than the entire GOP field.

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