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South Florida Congressional Race Bitter, Tight

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MIAMI (CBSMiami/NSF) -- A South Florida congressional contest between Democratic freshman U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County School Board member, has gone beyond negative.

Sean Foreman, an associate professor of political science at Barry University, described the District 26 battle --- one of two hotly contested congressional races in Florida this year --- as "bitter," noting the candidates don't like each other "and it shows."

"The faithful Democrats know Garcia well, but the average voter really is not familiar with him. Curbelo is in a similar situation with Republicans," Foreman said. "So I think the ads are having the effect of rallying regular voters behind one or other candidate based on which 'scandal' they think is worse."

The Washington Post in December 2012 called Garcia one of the 10 most-vulnerable incumbents for 2014, and the outlook hasn't changed. National pundits rate the race as a "toss up." And both camps haven't held back in letting charges of corruption and unethical behavior fly.

On Tuesday, for example, David Bergstein of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called Curbelo a "two-faced lobbyist" who "can't be trusted."

Katie Prill of the National Republican Congressional Committee has offered that "Joe Garcia is as corrupt as they come, and it's time for him to go."

The race for the district, which includes a large chunk of Miami-Dade County and Monroe County, has attracted big-name national endorsements and big dollars, with Curbelo up to $1.73 million in contributions and Garcia at $3.34 million, as of Sept. 30.

Both campaigns have been reluctant to display internal polling results. Foreman said that could be a sign that both candidates have low polling numbers.

Curbelo, 34, who set up a business and political consulting firm called Capitol Gains after graduating from the University of Miami, served as state director for U.S. Sen. George LeMieux before winning a seat on the Miami-Dade School Board in 2010.

Curbelo received 47 percent of the vote in a five-way Republican primary in August that included the congressional district's former representative, David Rivera.

Garcia, 51, is an attorney who was appointed to the Florida Public Service Commission by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. Garcia later served as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. In 2009, Garcia went to work for President Barack Obama in the Department of Energy.
Garcia won the congressional seat in his third attempt, defeating Rivera, who faced numerous ethics-related questions.

Garcia and Curbelo, both of Cuban descent, take opposing stances on many key issues in the district, such as on the Affordable Care Act, flood insurance, Social Security and Cuba.

Curbelo said he favors maintaining the trade embargo against Cuba, while revising the Cuban Adjustment Act, which provides a system for Cuban refugees to live in the United States. He wants to tighten requirements so that the act applies only people who were victims of oppression.

"Any changes to U.S.-Cuban policy need to be made or considered in context that this is an enemy of the United States," Curbelo said during a debate on WPLG's "This Week in South Florida."

Garcia supports allowing more travel and contact with the island nation, while maintaining the Cuban Adjustment Act.

"It's easy to come in and close that door behind you to those behind you," Garcia replied during the debate.

But such distinctions have been overshadowed by the negative campaigning.

Curbelo has tried to paint Garcia as a flawed politician who engaged in the same kinds of political dirty tricks that Rivera was accused of using.

Garcia has denied personally knowing that his chief of staff set up a plot to make fake online requests for absentee ballots in the 2012 contest. The chief of staff wound up resigning and going to jail for 90 days.

"The state attorney's office cleared us of any wrongdoing, and we move on," Garcia said. "I could change the story, but that isn't the story. I've given the facts."

Garcia added fuel to the partisan fight when he labeled the majority party in the Republican-controlled House "this extremist element, this Taliban," during the federal government shutdown in October 2013.

Meanwhile, Curbelo has been attacked for supporting statewide education cuts in 2010 as part of Gov. Rick Scott's education transition team. And Curbelo has had to scramble over a recorded comment in which he compared Medicare and Social Security to a "Ponzi scheme."

Curbelo has also been repeatedly questioned for putting his consulting company into his wife's name, a move that allows him to keep from disclosing the names of clients.

"What I'm not going to do is allow this campaign to become about my past work," Curbelo said. "It should be about the issues and it should be also about our campaigns and how we conduct our campaigns."

"The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report."

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