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Todd Wilcox and David Jolly clash early and often during Tiger Bay debate in Tampa

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Todd Wilcox was the early aggressor against David Jolly in the first one-on-one encounter between the two aspiring Florida Republicans for the U.S. Senate on Friday, but Jolly more than held his own in a spirited debate at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club.

The two men are part of a field of five candidates running to succeed Marco Rubio in the what used to be called the world’s greatest deliberative body later this year. Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff, north Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera round out the field.

Wilcox, a former combat veteran who has become a successful Windermere-based entrepreneur, startled Jolly by stating in his opening remarks that he was going to spell out the contrasts between himself and the Pinellas County-based U.S. Representative, who was elected almost exactly two years ago in a special election to succeed the late Bill Young.

Saying it was a contrast between one who represents the status quo and a candidate who represents a return to citizen voting, Wilcox labeled Jolly a “political insider, a career politician. Somebody who used the revolving door from K Street to Capitol Hill.”

“Not sure that was the tone I expected you to start the day with,” Jolly riposted. “I was hoping to focus on the qualifications we both bring.”

For Jolly, that meant showing off his expertise in Congress. Although he has only served in the House for two years, Jolly worked as an aide to Young for over a decade before becoming a D.C.-based lobbyist. Throughout the debate, he displayed a thorough command on the issues, and emphasized that he’s a conservative who gets results, not a bomb thrower who simply offers red meat to the base but ultimately doesn’t deliver.

“The job is to get things done. The job is to fight for the community. The job is to deliver results,” Jolly said, later adding that candidates are “selling fool’s gold when they suggest that it’s going to be ‘our way or no other way’, because the only result is gridlock and shutdown.”

That underlying tension between the two men never went away during the hour, in which they sat just a few feet from each other. They agreed on some issues, and disagreed on others.

Wilcox repeatedly hammered home an anti-Washington message, seemingly the dominant mood among Republicans who are weary of “establishment” politics in 2016. It’s that same attitude that has led to the ascension of Donald Trump to the front of the GOP race for president, and Wilcox is hoping to ride that wave into office for himself. Later in the debate he said that of the three remaining Republicans in the race, he could work the best with Trump, praising the former “Apprentice” host for “his real world experience.”

Jolly mocked the phrase, but had to offer his own explanation on where he stands on Trump. Having previously called for him to leave the race in December after Trump said that he would temporarily ban all Muslims from entry into the U.S., Jolly has attempted to deal with the new realities of the race, which in very real terms means that there is a possibility the two could be on the same ballot in Florida this November – and Trump did just win 66 out of the state’s 67 counties over the Miami-based Rubio earlier in the week.

He said that it was too early for him to decide about supporting Trump for president since the election isn’t until November. He did say that under no circumstances would he support Hillary Clinton, not would he support any move by party elders that could undermine the will of the voters when the Republican National Convention convenes in July.

Last month Wilcox introduced his 5-point plan to “end career politicians,” which include stripping pensions for members of congress and limiting them to term limits of 12 years.

Jolly has attempted to reflect the mood of the public with recently proposed reforms, such as banning federal office holders from soliciting campaign contributions and  threatening to withhold their pay if they fail to fund the government by the end of the fiscal year.

Wilcox mocked the latter effort, saying,”It takes an act of Congress to get Congress to do their job? Is that what you’re telling me? That in and of itself is the stuff that we’re all fed up with.”

Wilcox repeated that the Founding Fathers wanted a citizens-led government, not “aspirational politicians” to pad their pockets.

Both men at times tossed off acronyms to demonstrate their knowledge. For Jolly it was on government procedures, for Wilcox it was business terms.

“It takes business leadership in Washington to understand how a P&L, and a balance sheet work,” said Wilcox. “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, and I’m bringing some business sense to the table. That’s part of that contrast I was talking about.”

“I appreciate that contrast,” Jolly later quipped, saying that something that he doesn’t talk enough about is the fact that he also is a (small) businessman, mentioning that he runs four businesses (A Jolly staffer later confirmed that they are Three Bridges Advisors, Three Bridges Law, 1924 Communications and 10th & Penn Communications).

When talking about infrastructure spending, Jolly couldn’t restrain from sounding a little condescending.

“I realize Todd you’re a first-time candidate and don’t understand the intricacies of actually implementing change through Congress, ” Jolly mocked.”How does Joe Lopano want to expand infrastructure expansion at the Tampa Airport? Is it through PFC or AIP,” he said pausing. “That’s a tough question. That’s a question that relies on experience.”

It was also a question that no one knew in the audience knew the answer to.

When asked if they would support holding hearings on Garland Merrick, President Obama’s choice to succeed Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, Jolly said he did, though he didn’t see a way that the GOP-led Senate would ever confirm him. Wilcox said no, using the GOP talking point that the “people had spoken” in 2014 in electing a Republican-led Senate, and that he could only support an Obama nominee if he espoused the same theories on “originalism” that distinguished Scalia.

“An originalist would meet with the Supreme Court nominee, because there’s a constitutional duty to do your job,” Jolly said.

The two also differed on having an open primary voting system. In last Tuesdays’ presidential primary in Florida, over three million people were effectively disenfranchised simply because they’re not registered with the Republican or Democratic parties. Jolly said he supports the concept of opening up the system, while Wilcox prefers the status quo.

Both candidates oppose ending the economic sanctions on Cuba.”We got nothing out of this idea,” Wilcox said regarding Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough in December of 2014,  though he admitted that the economic sanctions haven’t appeared to make any difference in the Communist island. Jolly does support ending the travel ban, distinguishing himself from the other four Republicans on the issue, but one where public sentiment seems to be on his side.

It wasn’t all acrimonious. Wilcox did praise Jolly for his work on Veterans issues. So there was that.

Jolly will soon announce the schedule of two upcoming debates with Democratic Senate hopeful Alan Grayson, which will take place in either Tampa or Orlando.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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