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Florida GOP incumbents won't debate Democratic challengers

WASHINGTON — Miami's three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress have scrapped plans to participate in a series of debates with their Democratic challengers.

The South Florida AFL-CIO, which in recent years has hosted debates for mayor and governor, planned three debates next week for the nationally watched races. But the Republicans said this week they're not going, throwing the bipartisan nature of the event into doubt.

The union — which endorsed the three incumbents in 2006 — says the events will go on next week as scheduled. All three Democrats, who represent the first significant challenge to the incumbents, say they plan to attend and suggested the GOP'ers were reluctant to spar face-to face.

''We just want to give our working families a chance to talk to the candidates,'' said union president Fred Frost, who met late Wednesday with representatives from two of the Republican campaigns in a bid to revive the events. "I think they'd be squandering what I'd consider a great opportunity.''

Frost sent out a press release last week announcing that the debates — to be moderated by three Miami television reporters — would be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at union halls in each of the three districts. He said at the time that only Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had yet to confirm participation.

Ros-Lehtinen, however, said this week that she won't attend. A statement read by a campaign spokesman didn't explain why, but instead sought to underscore what Ros-Lehtinen said was her support for the ''working people of South Florida,'' including voting to raise the minimum wage.

''Rank and file union members know that I have stood with them,'' she said.

Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, who had agreed to participate, also said this week that they'll be no-shows. They said last minute changes to the debate schedule and the venues made it impossible for them to appear, though Frost said he had already changed the schedules once to accommodate them.

The congressmen said through a spokesmen that they "regret that the agreed-upon date and venue for the candidate forums were changed by the AFL-CIO without communicating the changes to the two campaigns.''

Lincoln Diaz-Balart's camp said he had agreed at least a month ago to appear on May 27, but was told Friday the event would be held May 28. He said he was also told the event would be held at the Fireman's Tower in Doral, but the venue was later changed. Diaz-Balart has already been endorsed by the Metro Dade firefighters union, along with the Dade County Police Benevolent Association.

A clearly frustrated Frost said he ''did everything I know how'' to accommodate the scheduling. He said late Wednesday that he had met with campaign representatives for both Diaz-Balarts and held out hope that a compromise could be reached.

The GOP'ers decision to skip the event rankled the Democrats, with Joe Garcia, who is challenging Mario Diaz-Balart, calling it an "act of political cowardice.''

''This is very disappointing,'' said former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, who is challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "The voters deserve public debates on the issues. Lincoln votes blindly with Bush and then won't explain why. Lincoln has failed the voters again. He talks tough and then hides.''

Businesswoman Annette Taddeo, who is challenging Ros-Lehtinen and was in Washington, D.C. this week raising money for her campaign, said she's still hoping for a change of heart.

''It's time for some dialogue,'' said Taddeo's spokeswoman Anastasia Apa. "We're prepared.''

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