Former Army officer Tom Rooney held a slim lead over State Rep. Gayle Harrell in the Republican primary Tuesday, with the winner to face freshman Democrat Tim Mahoney, who captured his seat after Rep. Mark Foley resigned amid an Internet teen sex scandal.
With 66 percent of the precincts reporting, Rooney had 36.6 percent of the vote to 36.2 percent for Harrell - a mere 195-vote difference. Hal Valeche, a wealthy investor, Navy veteran and former Palm Beach Gardens city councilor, trailed with 27 percent.
A number of Republican leaders, including Gov. Charlie Crist, put their weight behind Rooney, a lawyer whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Palm Beach County dog track.
They consider Mahoney their best chance to take back a seat from the Democrats in Florida, believing his win was just a fluke in the wake of Foley's disgraceful resignation.
Foley was considered a shoo-in two years ago until he stepped down about a month before the election when it was revealed he had sent sexually explicit electronic messages to male teenage pages who had worked on Capitol Hill.
While Foley has never been charged with a crime, the FBI and state law enforcement continue to investigate.
Mahoney barely beat the GOP's last-minute replacement on the ticket, state Rep. Joe Negron. Foley's name remained on the ballot, but any votes cast for him went to Negron.
Mahoney, a wealthy former venture capitalist, has repeatedly said he hates Washington politics, but disputes the characterization that he doesn't like his job.
Still, it won't be an easy race to win for his opponent. Mahoney has built a reputation as a more moderate Democrat in District 16, which leans conservative, with about 201,000 registered Republicans compared to about 180,000 Democrats out of 486,752 voters.
During his campaign two years ago, his TV ads were strong on God, guns and family.
"I am as conservative as you can get," Mahoney said then.
He has raised nearly $2.5 million for his re-election campaign in the district that spans from Palm Beach County across the state to Charlotte County on the Gulf coast.