By DUANE MARSTELLER
The venue was different.
So was the audience.
But Friday's fourth and final forum featuring all four 13th Congressional District candidates largely echoed the previous three encounters.
Facing the South County Tiger Bay Club this time, Democrat Christine Jennings again questioned Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan's character and business record.
Like he had before, Buchanan ignored her criticisms and touted his endorsements for re-election and his first-term accomplishments.
Meanwhile, unaffiliated candidate Don Baldauf continued to advocate oil drilling closer to Florida's Gulf Coast and building a refinery in Manatee County.
And Jan Schneider, another unaffiliated candidate, repeated her call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Thus, the candidates broke little new ground in their final scheduled public appearance together before voters decide Nov. 4 who will represent the district, which covers most of Manatee, all of DeSoto, Hardee and Sarasota, and part of Charlotte counties.
Jennings repeatedly hammered Buchanan about his legal troubles, including a recent rash of lawsuits against him and his car dealerships. She pointed to the more than 190 lawsuits Buchanan and his businesses have faced in his 32-year career and his placement on a Washington group's "20 most-corrupt members of Congress" as evidence.
Jennings said her "distinguished" 40-year banking career makes her "the person who best understands what is going on right now in our economy and can best represent our interests in Washington."
Buchanan did not respond to Jennings' criticisms, instead repeatedly emphasizing his long list of endorsements from the district's newspapers and elected officials. He also touted his securing $26 million of federal money for a veterans' cemetery in Sarasota County and his independent streak.
"I want to go up there and continue to try to do what's right, to be bipartisan and do what's best for America," he said. "Washington is broken. We've got to change the way we do business."
To which Jennings replied: "Vern says blame it on the politicians in Washington. Well, Vern is one of them up there."
That led Schneider, a Sarasota lawyer, to criticize the frontrunners' campaign tactics.
"I believe that democracy should start with clean campaigning," she said, adding that "I am running to end this war" in Iraq.
Baldauf, a licensed alarm contractor from Bradenton, called himself "just a regular guy" with a novel solution to the region's struggling economy: Building an oil refinery.
"We can recover a lot of product and not hurt the environment," he said.
The candidates took so long to introduce themselves to the audience of more than 50 people that it left time for just four issues-oriented questions.
Buchanan and Jennings called the recent $700 billion financial bailout package necessary to open frozen credit, while Schneider called it unaffordable and said the money should be spent on creating jobs and improving roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Baldauf said it was "crazy" that the United States was borrowing more money from Asia.
A question about crime evolved into a debate among the foursome about illegal immigration, Buchanan and Jennings reiterated that U.S. borders need more securing, while Schneider said, "We need to start enforcing the laws we already have."
Balduaf's philosophy: "I want to keep the good ones here and send the bad ones back."
The verbal volleying was reminiscent of the four candidates' previous encounters on the campaign trail: In front of the Hardee County Chamber of Commerce; before Manatee Education Television cameras and a raucous crowd at the University of South Florida's Sarasota-Manatee campus; and in BLAB-TV's cramped studio.
It also left at least one member of the audience unimpressed.
"I'm 83 years old, and I've heard just about everything these politicians can say," said Don Mercereau of Venice. "It's not what they say, it's their action