George Sheldon and Perry Thurston are so civil toward one another — publicly, at least — that they embraced after pitching themselves in back-to-back appearances before a group of Democratic activists in Plantation.
The two Democrats are competing in the Aug. 26 primary for their party's nomination to challenge Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in November. The governor's race is taking up most of the political oxygen in Florida, but the job of "A.G." is the second most important statewide elected office.
Rather than directing their political energy toward explaining why he's the best candidate for the nomination, Sheldon and Thurston are instead competing to show who's more anti-Bondi and who can offer the strongest criticisms of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Sheldon and Thurston have a tough challenge. They're well known to political insiders, but not to the broad base of voters. And, neither has been able to raise much money. Bondi has raised more than six times the money of the two Democrats combined, and she still has most of her money while Sheldon and Thurston have spent most of what they've taken in.
Democratic primary voters also face a tough choice in deciding whom to back: There's about a millimeter of difference between Sheldon and Thurston on policy issues — and finding it requires an intense examination of their records and positions.
Thurston wants to repeal the controversial "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law, which became well known because of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. Sheldon said it needs to be "tweaked [and] I would consider repeal." The 2005 law says that a person has "the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm."
Both support the death penalty, medical marijuana, automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons, Obamacare and same-sex marriage. Both oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
"They're both excellent candidates, and it's a really, really tough choice," said Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party.
Each offers a somewhat different vision for running the office.
Sheldon emphasizes his background as a manager of agencies with lots of employees and big budgets and brings up examples from his long career in government.
"The attorney general, frankly, is more about being a general than being an attorney. You've got 500 lawyers, and it's learning how to have the vision and a direction and managing those 500 lawyers moving forward," he said.
Sheldon mentions "standing up against the power companies" when utilities seek rate increases and aggressive policing of financial institutions if they engage in practices such as predatory lending, and stepping up efforts against health care fraud.
Among the issues Thurston raises are the political maneuvering that surrounded the redistricting of congressional and legislative districts following the 2000 Census and Republican opposition to expanding the Medicaid health program for the poor.
Thurston emphasizes his experience as a Democratic leader in the Legislature and emphasizes what he'd like to do in the future as opposed to the past.
"I'm telling you what I'm doing now. I'm not reflecting back to 20 years ago," he said. "I think the major difference is the fact that if you listen to many of [Sheldon's] answers it's about stuff that happened in the past. I'm dealing with the issues of the present and that's the only difference that I can see."
Sheldon's response: "Past is prologue. And I think that what you've done in the past can predict what you'll do in the future. I think it's the best test."
And each has a different strategy for approaching the November election. Thurston said he's best positioned to beat Bondi because he'll be able to motivate Democratic voters, many of whom stay home during mid-term elections between presidential contests. Sheldon said he has the best chance to oust Bondi because he can appeal to independent voters and moderate Republicans.
Republicans think Bondi can defeat either Sheldon on Thurston.
"I don't think they have a shot in hell," said Jay Narang, one of Bondi's Broward co-chairmen in 2010 and again this year. "She's not vulnerable. Overall, she has been a good attorney general."