Six candidates in the running for the open District 19 Congressional seat got together Thursday at the Sanibel Community House for another in a series of forums.
And the one candidate who was absent drew equal attention.
Republicans Curt Clawson, Michael Dreikorn and Paige Kreegel; Libertarian Ray Netherwood; write-in candidate Tim Rossano; and Democrat April Freeman gathered to meet their potential constituents and make a brief speech and answer questions.
The forum, presented by the Sanibel League of Women Voters, was the first major event the relatively new chapter has hosted.
"This is our fourth year as a full-fledged league. We have been trying to do candidate debates, but last year there were no council elections because there were no candidates," said Linda Kramer, league president.
Each candidate, who had time before and after the forum to speak with voters individually, drew straws for the order in which they would speak, and had 10 minutes to roll out their platform and, if time allowed, answer questions from those in attendance.
With so many Republicans in the running, much of what they had to say was pretty much the same, expressing their opposition for Obamacare, entitlements, big government, local water quality, and other talking points.
Yet, in an area where the Republicans have ruled, it was the lone Democrat who got the only mid-speech applause when Freeman said health care was a human right. She was also the only candidate who went after the others.
Overall, those in attendance thought everyone did well in expressing their points, even if it was just briefly.
"They all impressed me. Anyone who's willing to come out here and campaign, I'm impressed," said Chauncey Goss.
"I was trying to listen to the differences of what the Republican candidates think, but because they're so similar, there aren't many differences," said Joel Soobitsky from the Lee County Republican Executive Committee. "With the limited time they had, we know more about where they're from then what we believe."
For the candidates, they had done this a dozen times before, so it was old hat. Kreegel didn't think he hurt himself, nor did any of the other candidates.
"It's the same candidates except for one, who keeps finding an excuse for not being here. We did well, it's rather rote by this period of time," Kreegel said. "For the audience, it was their first time hearing us, so that's what's important."
Indeed, the table that seemed to get the most attention was the empty one in the back of the auditorium. Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto chose not to attend, instead going to Naples for a fund-raiser with former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This after saying she couldn't because of business in Tallahassee.
The reaction was mixed. Goss and Rossano said it was a tactical decision, since she appears to be the front-runner and, as Rossano put it, "If you don't show up, you can't get beat up," while Kramer said it was her decision.
Others didn't feel the same way. Soobitsky said it bothered him, putting into question Benacquisto's integrity and a dent in her candidacy.
"I was ready to vote for her, but after this, Benacquisto is off my list," said Frances Beaudoin, a Sanibel resident.
The Republican primary is on April 22, with the special election on June 24 for the seat formerly held by Trey Radel, who resigned in February following his arrest last year for drug possession.