Floridians headed to the polls Monday for the first day of early voting in an important midterm election, which will decide the state's next governor and could cause control of Congress to change.
The war in Iraq, property taxes and widespread dissatisfaction with the scandal-ridden Republican-led Congress were a few of the issues on voters' minds as they chose candidates in several tight races.
"The folks who we have elected haven't done a good job across the board," said John Hall, a 66-year-old Pensacola Republican who said he would like politicians to offer solutions to problems rather than attack each other.
Several key races on ballot
Hall voted for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, the state's attorney general, in his race against Democrat U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, saying he liked Crist's platform. A new poll showed Crist and Davis about even, after the Republican had held comfortable leads for months.
Hall said he expected Democrats to enjoy victories in the Nov. 7 general election, including taking control of the U.S. House.
Donald Taylor, 43, of Jacksonville, cast a ballot for Davis on his way to work Monday morning.
"I think we need a clean slate," he said.
Floridians are also deciding whether to return incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, to Washington or replace him with Republican U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris. Harris is known nationally for her role in the 2000 presidential recount, but has trailed badly in the polls.
Russell Jones, 74, a Pensacola Democrat, said his dislike for Harris helped bring him out to vote.
"I don't like her at all and I'm voting strictly Democrat," he said.
The contest to fill Harris' seat is one of several congressional races considered key in Democrats' bid to gain control of Congress. In the southwest Florida district, Republican auto dealer Vern Buchanan is in a tight race with Democrat Christine Jennings, a retired banker.
In South Florida, Republican state Rep. Joe Negron must persuade people to vote for him by checking disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley's name on the ballot.
Negron was picked to step into the race after Foley resigned when he was confronted with sexually explicit text messages he had written teenage male congressional pages. Democrat Tim Mahoney now has a chance to claim Foley's open seat.
Also in South Florida, incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw is facing a strong challenge from Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein.
Dorothy Peters, an 80-year-old Republican who voted in Orlando, said her party's recent troubles, including the Foley scandal, didn't sway her vote. She cast a straight GOP ticket.
"Those problems happened, but I'm going to move on," she said.
Other voters said they were more concerned about the Iraq war.
"What swayed me was the way the Democrats have been speaking against the war. It almost seems un-American," said Orlando voter Mary Patrick, a 30-year-old freelance writer.
But Robert Lee, 74, of Pensacola, said he was more concerned about issues closer to home like property taxes, insurance and the state's homestead exemption and that is why he supported Davis.
"I'm worried about the war situation, but I'm also concerned about what's going here," he said.
Politics of 2000
The practice of opening the polls early in Florida was expanded after the botched presidential election in 2000. Officials hoped having selected polling sites open early would help keep lines shorter on Election Day.
Voting went smoothly at locations around the state Monday morning, said Florida Division of Elections spokesman Sterling Ivey.
"Any amount of voters that come out and vote early or via absentee ballot will reduce the stress on the system that we generally see on Election Day," he said.
In the 2004 general election, 25 percent of Florida voters, or about 1.4 million people, voted early, he said.