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CLEARWATER, Florida (AP) — Voters in this stretch of beach towns and retirement communities provide the first 2014 campaign test of whether Democrats can counter Republican attacks on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul by accusing their rivals of threatening popular benefit programs for the elderly.
Democrat Alex Sink and her allies in the spirited race to replace the late Rep. Bill Young in the U.S. House have spent millions of dollars on TV ads ahead of Tuesday's special election painting Republican David Jolly as an extremist who wants to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare — the government programs that provide retirement benefits and health care coverage to seniors.
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 the president'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 November elections when control of Congress will be at stake. Democrats face an uphill struggle to gain the 17 seats they need to regain control of the House of Representatives. Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a Senate majority, but have a number of opportunities to do so in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012.
Officials in both parties have said in recent days that private polls show the special House race in Florida to be close. Each party has made late appeals for campaign cash.
Former President Bill Clinton recorded a phone call last week seeking local volunteers to help with Sink's campaign and a half dozen House Democrats emailed fundraising appeals to their own supporters on behalf of her. More than a third of Jolly's campaign contributions came from members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan joined Jolly on a conference call with voters, while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recorded a phone message for the Republican nominee aimed at supporters of Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby.
While 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. In all, the candidates, their party committees and several outside groups have collectively spent almost $10 million blanketing the airwaves with largely negative ads focused on health care costs and Social Security.
Part of the reason is the large percentage of seniors in this district, which is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent. More than one in four registered voters is older than 65, a population that could make up more than half of those who cast ballots.
But in an effort to deflect Republican attacks on the health care law and rollout problems, Democrats also plan to prominently feature proposed Republican curbs on Social Security and Medicare in competitive races across the country.
"Those issues are paramount," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democrats' campaign operation. "Having Republicans say that they want to cut Medicare but continue to fund massive subsidies to big oil companies ... that will be a defining theme."
Republicans answer by highlighting how some Medicare payment rates were cut by Democrats to help pay for the health overhaul. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $1.2 million on ads arguing Sink is "still pushing Obamacare," the 2010 law that it calls "a disaster for families and seniors." Another spot says Sink supports Obamacare "even though it means higher costs and lost benefits," citing reductions to Medicare Advantage, which lets seniors enroll in Medicare through private insurance plans.
Jolly has put up ads promising spending cuts, balanced budgets and replacing the health care law.
Sink has outspent Jolly by more than 3 to 1 on television advertising, though outside groups aligned with the Republican Party have helped narrow the overall Democratic advantage.
Having focused much of his campaign on the botched launch of the health care law, Jolly has lately found himself on the defensive about entitlement programs. On a recent morning at a senior center here, the former lobbyist devoted the bulk of his remarks to rebutting Democratic ads that say he worked for a group that wants to privatize Social Security. The spot also charges that he "praised a plan ending Medicare's guarantee."
The Republicans' national campaign committee for House candidates has poured $2 million into TV ads, including one picturing Jolly's opponent next to Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. "She's fighting for them, not for us," the ad says of Sink.
Sink, formerly Florida's chief financial officer, tries to blunt the criticism in her own ads. One spot says repealing the health care law would "force seniors to pay thousands more for prescription drugs"
"We can't go back to letting insurance companies do whatever they want," Sink says in the ad.
Associated Press reporters Philip Elliott and David Espo in Washington and Tony Winton and Tamara Lush in Florida contributed to this report.
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